I beg to move,
That this House
calls upon the BBC to reconsider the scale and timing of its proposed cuts so as better to safeguard BBC local radio, regional television news and programmes, the morale and enthusiasm of its staff, and the quality of BBC programmes generally, all of which have made the BBC the most respected public service broadcaster in the world.
I am very grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for providing this wonderful opportunity for Members to say what they think of the cuts proposed by the BBC in Delivering Quality First. It is important to get those views on the record and for us all to say what we think the BBC should do given its current financial stringencies. I am an admirer of the BBC. It is the best news and media organisation in the world, and an institution of which we in Britain can be proud. It is better to say that outside the BBC and admiring it than it is inside and working for it, as I once did, when one has to tackle the layers of bureaucracy above.
This admirable institution is now threatened by cuts. The licence fee settlement is the worst in the BBC’s history, with the licence fee frozen at £145 for six years. On top of that, the BBC is required, from 2014, to finance the World Service and BBC Monitoring, both of which used to be a Foreign Office responsibility and should, in my view, continue to be so. The BBC World Service does a better job for Britain in the world than the Foreign Office and all its pinstriped mandarins put together, and it should be financed by the Foreign Office. In addition, the BBC loses £150 million a year to finance superfast broadband, for which, again, the Government should be responsible, and £25 million a year to finance the Secretary of State’s dream of local TV stations. All this amounts to savings of 16% in the annual budget, to which the BBC has added another 4%—in other words, £670 million a year in cuts. That is on top of the efficiency savings of 3%, or £487 million, a year that were required in 2007 for the period 2008-13, and are, in fact, being exceeded. The BBC is suffering a double dose of anorexia, and that threatens quality, jobs, innovation and creativity, and hence a groundhog diet of endless repeats on television.
This is a squeeze too far. I have to admit that the BBC has certain faults, which I shall list. It has not helped itself with its erratic financial decisions. For instance, there was the hokey cokey about Broadcasting house. First, it was going to move, then it moved out to White City, and now it is going to move back and sell the old television centre at White City.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman, who is chairman of the all-party group on the media, on his consistency on this issue. I do not accept that the BBC has an anorexia problem. It is an obese organisation and, like the rest of the public sector, it needs to go on a diet. I accept that the BBC does a huge amount of good and is probably the best news organisation in the world. Does he accept that the decision on where the cuts fall should not discriminate against regional and local radio? The BBC is in danger of being very London-centric, retaining managers in London while laying off hard-working journalists in the regions.
I accept that absolutely. The BBC should concentrate on efficiency savings, which are still possible in what is, as the hon. Gentleman says, a large organisation. That, and not the cuts in regional services and local radio stations that are forecast in Delivering Quality First, should be the basis of any cuts.
I would rather not accept a lot of interventions because many Members want to speak, and I think it is better that they make their points in the debate rather than interrupt my diatribe.
The BBC bureaucracy has always been more adept and skilful at interfering with and managing programmes than at managing the finances of the BBC. As a result, it is unable to cost its services and say where the efficiency savings should come. That is a problem for the BBC, but it is being cured with the help of the National Audit Office, which says in its report on the BBC’s efficiency programme—we discussed it in the Public Accounts Committee—that the BBC is making splendid progress. I want that progress to continue. I want the BBC to be able to say, “If we cut to this extent, the overall consequences will be X and the consequences for delivery and quality of services will be Y.”
We need that clarity so that the BBC can take a firm position on what cuts it can accept instead of its current approach, which is the culture that characterises Delivering Quality First of can-do submission to whatever the Government propose. The Secretary of State shakes his head. Last October, though, the BBC apparently quaked before the terrifying spectre of the Secretary of State; we have read about what must have been a terrifying weekend of pressure that he brought to bear. It should be immortalised in some kind of drama—“Three Days in October”—showing the terrifying effect that he had on the BBC, which caved in totally. The Secretary of State put the frighteners on, Sir Michael Lyons resigned, and the BBC set about a “Yes sir, no sir, three bags full, sir” programme of cuts. Indeed, the director general, Mark Thompson, told staff in Belfast—this is very unlike him—
“If you’re really that unhappy, if you think that you can’t do your best work here then leave—no-one is forcing you to stay.”
That situation, described as consultation of the BBC staff, was forced on the BBC by the Secretary of State with his bullying tactics last October. It is a skill that amazes me. Now he sits there smiling, all friendly, but that is not how the BBC saw him last October.
I am not saying, in all this, that the BBC is own worst enemy, because the Murdochs are still around. Indeed, the Murdochs are selling programmes; for instance, Elisabeth Murdoch sold “MasterChef” to the BBC. However, I am saying, loud and clear, that these cuts are going to be deeply damaging to the quality of the BBC service. One cannot force a 20% spending reduction over five years, with a loss of 2,000 jobs, 1,000 of which are in the vital news services, without it being a blow to creativity and to all the creative industries that supply and support the BBC, and without doing deep damage. That is what will happen over the coming years if the BBC, as it is being forced to do, follows the prescriptions laid out by James Murdoch in the MacTaggart lecture in Edinburgh a few years ago. The cuts programme has an amazing resemblance to what he said he wanted.
Let us look at the consequences. This debate provides an opportunity for all Members to give their views on the consequences and to say what they think should be done. I would like to first consider local radio. There is a strong feeling among Members that the cuts to local radio go too far and will be too damaging. That point emerged in the Westminster Hall debate.
On the issue of local radio stations, Radio Shropshire is not even allowed to procure its own window cleaners. That is done centrally from London. The BBC in London sends window cleaners from Lancashire to clean the windows in Shropshire. That is highly unacceptable and must be changed. There must be better procurement and value for money at the BBC.
I hope that the cleaners from Lancashire do not arrive with little ukuleles in their hands. That would be an example of excessive expenditure at the BBC. However, such examples do not make the case for the cuts, because the cuts will be much more deep-seated. I accept that there are anomalies and problems.
The cuts will press heavily on local radio, which we all respect. It provides our roots in society and in politics. I am particularly proud of Radio Humberside. It does not do enough on politics, but that is probably because it would lose its audience if it did more on politics. It would gain me, but it would lose its audience. It is a particularly good station. It will lose 8.5 members of staff as a result of these decisions.
In BBC local radio overall, the output will be cut by 22%, the budgets will be cut by 19%—far in excess of all the other cuts—and 280 jobs will be lost, which is an average of seven per station. That will be a crippling blow. Such harsh cuts press particularly hard on small organisations that have high fixed costs.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is making a magnificent speech. The talk about window cleaners trivialises the problem. BBC Radio York, which got the title of best original journalism of the year this year, will lose eight journalists as a result of the cuts. Surely the licence fee should pay for the sort of broadcast services that commercial stations will not provide. Local radio is at the core of that.
I agree with my hon. Friend. I am sure that that station’s ratings will go up as his appearances multiply. It is true that local radio provides a better service for older people and that it is more listened to by older people. That is why I am dealing with this issue—I am one of the oldest Members around. It is true that the cuts will be deeply damaging to the roots of the BBC and to us in particular.
The same is true of the quality of the local press. The number of reporters in the local press is declining steadily and rapidly across the country. It is also tragic that regional television, which we rely on for the coverage of regional politics, faces cuts of 16% and 100 jobs lost. Regional news on television has already suffered from the cuts at ITV. Competition will be further damaged by these cuts.
BBC Online, which the Murdochs have complained about vociferously because it competes with their paid services, will be cut by 25%. That is real vandalism, because it is a quality service. I rely on it heavily for news and information.
The Asian Network, which is the only non-sectarian, non-political service for news, music and discussion for all Asian communities, will lose 47 people, have a budget cut of 46% and face the closure of its Leicester newsroom. That will be a bitter blow to ethnic communities and to the ethnic mix among BBC staff.
Those are the major objections that I have to the cuts. I have no doubt that other Members will put forward other objections. The BBC must consider the objections that come from us and from the rest of society. There may be other cuts to come. That is not clear because negotiations are still going on over pension conditions.
Before my hon. Friend leaves the issue of regional television, does he think that it is consistent with the BBC charter for the BBC to locate most of its production at Salford, Bristol and Cardiff, and to leave areas such as Birmingham, the west midlands and his part of the world out of the loop?
No, I do not. It is true that services are being unacceptably concentrated in those places. We want better services and better staffing in Yorkshire and the Humber, which—dare I say it—are a nation in themselves and deserve to be treated as a nation. The cuts are a serious setback to recruitment and to the transfer of jobs out of London, which cannot be satisfied just by the creation of the monster of a centre in Manchester.
The newsrooms of the BBC and the BBC World Service are going to be merged. There are overlaps there, which will lead to further redundancies. We are told that Radio 4 has been protected from cuts, but its producers have been required to reapply for their jobs.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend has raised the issue of Radio 4, which, as he said, is being protected. On Merseyside, more than twice the number of people who listen to Radio 4 listen to BBC Radio Merseyside, yet Radio Merseyside faces a cut of 20% and will lose a third of its staff. Overwhelmingly, the people who listen to it are elderly, disabled or poor. Those people do not have the option of finding other means of entertainment. Does he agree that it would make sense to protect local radio rather than Radio 4?
I agree absolutely. Radio 4 tends to be Radio South-East, or indeed Radio Westminster at times, given its concentration on politics. Listeners in the regions deserve the same degree of protection.
I was arguing that Radio 4, which is supposed to be protected, is not being protected because its producers are all being asked to reapply for their jobs. Audio & Music, which produces programmes such as “Desert Island Discs”, for which my invitation to appear is still to arrive—I hope that it arrives before rigor mortis sets in totally—has been cut by 18%, with a loss of 140 jobs.
To conclude, my message to the BBC is simple and threefold. To the BBC Trust, I say please go easier and slower with the cuts, particularly those to local services. To the BBC management, I say reconsider the proposals in Delivering Quality First carefully, because management in the regions are in revolt. We have had discussions with the regional management in Yorkshire and Humberside. Although they are preparing the cuts, they clearly want MPs to come forward against those cuts. They are inciting us against their own management.
I hope that I will not pre-empt my hon. Friend’s third message to the BBC. The concern has been raised with me that the BBC does not seem to be listening to the evidence of the number of listeners and viewers at a local level. It also proposes to create super-regions for television programming, in particular for “Inside Out”, where it believes that audiences will tolerate it. However, there is no evidence of that.
I agree absolutely. The people listen to the BBC, but is the BBC listening to the people in this instance? I ask BBC management, who have proposed a diet of sacrifices and cuts for everybody else in the BBC, what they can bring to the party. Salaries have become inflated in the BBC—there are 1,065 people earning more than £70,000 a year. Good heavens, that is as much as MPs get—what a scandal! We are grossly overpaid, of course, everybody says so. There are 45 people at the BBC with salaries of more than £190,000 a year, and the director-general’s package is also pretty inflated, it seems to me.
If BBC management agreed to cut the director-general’s package to £142,000 and lower the other top salaries in ratio with that, they could save and bring to the feast £27 million. That would be helpful when they are imposing cuts on other people. We are all in it together, and they are in it as much as the BBC staff. They should recognise that fact by making sacrifices. That is my third message to the BBC.
My final message is to the Government. I say to them that what happens is their responsibility, and substantially that of the Secretary of State. If and when—I say “when” because I think it is a case of “when”—it becomes clear that the cuts are destroying quality and ending intelligent debate and discussion of politics, the Government should stand ready to provide a supplementary licence fee. All the poll evidence indicates that people are prepared to pay more for their licence fee. One recent poll showed that they were prepared to pay 7p more a day. That would obviate the need for the cuts altogether. The Government should bear that in mind. They should certainly reconsider imposing the burden of the BBC World Service on the BBC itself. It should properly be financed by the Foreign Office.
I say to my fellow MPs who will speak after me, let us please avoid the old carping and criticism of the BBC. We all grumble at the BBC—it is there to be grumbled at, like the weather. However, it is also there to be admired. It is the best producer of quality programmes and quality news in the world, and an institution that we should be proud of, not treating in this horrendous fashion of cuts, sacrifice and dumbing down.
Order. May I explain to Members that, as Mr Speaker mentioned, we plan to end the debate at 3.15 pm and start the wind-ups at 2.45 pm? There are 12 Members who have indicated that they wish to speak, and I can be a little more generous on the time limit if Members are disciplined. If those speaking at the beginning take more than 10 minutes including interventions, it will mean that those who come later get less time. With that in mind, and knowing the self-discipline that Members will want to apply, I will set the time limit on Back-Bench speeches at 10 minutes.
It is tempting on such an occasion to attack and compliment the BBC in equal measure. I am very happy to say that I would pay my licence fee for Radio 4, and if I happened to get the Radio 5 Live football commentaries, “Newsnight” and “Match of the Day” thrown in I would be a satisfied customer. In reality, however, we are here this afternoon to convey to the BBC, through the Secretary of State, the concerns of our constituents.
It is clear that our constituents greatly value local radio. In the case of mine, that means Radio Humberside. Unless someone is local to the area, it is difficult for them to appreciate the antipathy to the word “Humberside”. Indeed, one of my illustrious predecessors, Michael Brown, pledged to expunge it from the English language. Alas, it lives on, although it is now sometimes referred to as “the Humber”. However, Radio Humberside has gone a considerable way towards overcoming the in-built suspicion of anything containing the word “Humberside”. Nowadays, we are at least referred to as “northern Lincolnshire”.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that despite the issue of the word “Humberside”, there is a lot of affection for Radio Humberside among people in Scunthorpe, Grimsby and on the south bank of the Humber, particularly for its support for and reporting on local people’s activities, whether they be football, arts or other things?
I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman, and the word “affection” appears somewhere in my notes in relation to Radio Humberside. I suspect, though, that most of my constituents on the south bank of the Humber are more interested in what goes on in Louth and Lincoln than in Cottingham and Kirk Ella. I therefore remain convinced that some savings could be made through joint working with Radio Lincolnshire. Residents in places such as Keelby and Caistor, which are really suburbs of Grimsby and Cleethorpes, feel much more part of what we might call the Humberside community than of the more rural Lincolnshire community. I acknowledge that the success of Radio Humberside is partly because people grow fond of—even affectionate towards—some of the presenters, such as Peter Levy with his lunchtime phone-in.
Does my hon. Friend agree that local presenters are very much admired and revered by the local community and hold local politicians to account in debates? May I put in a plug for Eric Smith, my favourite presenter on Radio Shropshire, who is also appearing in “Aladdin” at Shrewsbury’s Theatre Severn, playing the emperor of China? I very much hope that people will go and see him over the Christmas holidays.
I hope that plug serves my hon. Friend well in his future dealings with his local radio station, just as I hope that Peter Levy will view my next appearance on his programme favourably after my mention of him.
With the decline of many local newspapers, although thankfully not the Grimsby Telegraph, local news on BBC stations will become more important, although it is easy for them to overdo the contribution that they make to local politics. I can speak only for the Humberside and Lincolnshire area, but many years ago there was a Radio Humberside reporter at local council meetings as a matter of course. Indeed, when I was first elected to Great Grimsby borough council in 1980, there was a reporter who not only attended meetings of the full council but had the unpleasant task of even being at every committee meeting. I often used to sympathise with him as he sat through far more meetings than even the councillors were forced to.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to stress the local links that local radio has with the community and the identification of listeners with their local radio station. During the catastrophic floods in York 11 years ago, I was tasked by the police silver command one Friday night, when we ran out of sandbags, with trying to find some people to come in overnight and sew additional ones. I put out public appeals on BBC Radio York, Radio Humberside and Radio Lincolnshire. Two hours later, a factory manager in Lincolnshire said that he had been called up by workers who had gone to the factory having heard the programme, so that they could open it up and sew. Within 24 hours there were 1 million sandbags. Is there not a risk that such local community service by radio—
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I entirely agree with the point the hon. Gentleman makes on floods and the like. We have had our share of floods in the Cleethorpes area—most recently four years ago. Local radio comes into its own on such occasions.
To go back to the coverage of local politics, it is completely unrealistic to expect local council meetings to be covered individually by reporters. Indeed, in some areas, there are far too many local councils to be covered by local stations, which is another argument in favour of single-tier local government—that is an argument for another day.
I support the Government’s approach to the licence fee. Any organisation as large as the BBC can and should make savings. The licence fee is a significant burden—
I think I am running out of time, so if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will carry on.
The licence fee is a significant burden to those on low and fixed incomes. I acknowledge that although various schemes help some categories of my constituents, the licence fee falls disproportionately on the elderly and the housebound, who quite naturally rely to a much greater extent on their radios for company and entertainment.
The licence fee must be contained. I do not subscribe to the more radical proposals for the BBC that are supported by some of my hon. Friends—I would regard myself as a critical friend of the BBC. As the hon. Member for Great Grimsby pointed out, in many ways, the BBC sets a benchmark for quality and is an institution of which we should be justly proud, but it must recognise that it is funded by what is in effect a compulsory tax, and the anger the general public feel about some of the salaries and fees paid to executives and presenters. Why do more than 100 members of staff earn more than the Prime Minister? I remain unconvinced of the merits of that situation, although I am sure they are capable individuals.
The director-general carries a heavy responsibility, but he and his colleagues must recognise that my constituents, many of whom do not earn as much in their working lives as his annual salary, contribute to that. My constituents remain amazed that £15,000 per episode of “Question Time” represents a reduction in the presenter’s salary—£15,000 is not far short of the average wage for my constituents. I am a passionate supporter of the free market and recognise that the BBC operates in a competitive environment, but it must, like all publicly funded organisations, recognise the circumstances in which the country finds itself.
The motion asks for local radio and regional TV programmes to be safeguarded, but not completely insulated from savings, which to a limited extent can always be found. I put “local” ahead of “regional”. I find the suggestion of a “Radio England” completely unacceptable. Regional radio used to exist. I recall that when I bought my first Marconiphone transistor radio, I could tune into Midlands, North, London and the like as well as exotic stations such as Hilversum, Athlone and Luxembourg. However, regional radio never really had any buy-in from its audience—people did not tune into 434 medium wave for the northern news; they tuned in because that was the best reception in the area.
I enjoy some programmes on BBC 4 television, but I remain unconvinced that its new programming could not or should not be aired on BBC 2—indeed, it would have been before the latter station was dumbed down. That is not a throwaway remark. I clambered into my loft last weekend and dug out some editions of the
Radio Times from the 1960s and ’70s—do not ask me why I had them. When I flicked through those pages, I appreciated how much rubbish is broadcast these days in comparison with years gone by. I am told that BBC 4 is cheap television. I can understand that—it does not cost a great deal to re-broadcast a 1976 episode of “Top of the Pops”. I would prefer one from 1966, but that yet again shows my age.
Radio Humberside and local radio generally is greatly supported by our constituents up and down the country. It is that above all else that the BBC should concentrate on safeguarding as it looks for savings in other areas. I hope all hon. Members support the motion.
The motion says it all. I call on the BBC to reconsider some of its short-term responses to the problem of relieving pressure on its budget, and I hope to set out why. So many times in the Chamber recently I have had to express my concern about our national institutions, which are the envy of the world. The BBC is a well loved service, and one that is respected for factual output, drama and music. It is now leading the debate on science and bringing its beauty and wonder to the masses.
I shall focus on the national position, what is happening locally in the west midlands and what will happen in future. As my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby said, for just £12 a month, the nation can enjoy new drama, science and current affairs programmes. In my view, the BBC is hamstrung, because although the licence fee settlement is guaranteed until 2017, the licence fee is frozen. As he said, the BBC will also have new funding responsibilities for, among other things, the World Service and S4C, and must make savings of 20%.
The whole point of a public broadcaster is that it need not have an eye to the shareholder, so it can commission new and innovative programmes. The BBC is accountable to viewers, who will always tell it what they like and do not like, but people must have space and time to hone their craft. Creativity cannot be measured as a unit of expenditure.
Is it fair that viewers in the west midlands should have to pay the same licence fee as viewers in Cardiff, Bristol or Salford when the former get such a limited return for their investment compared with the latter?
A drama can have a greater impact and provide greater understanding of a topic; one has only to watch “Later…with Jools Holland” to see this country’s tremendous musical creativity; and in both television and radio, exploring the boundaries of our world and helping us to make sense of it is one of the cornerstones of what the BBC does.
What concerns me most as a west midlands MP is the proposed decimation of BBC West Midlands, which has a unique 90-year history of both factual and drama programme making. It is home to some of the most excellent programmes, such as “Countryfile”, “Coast” and “Gardeners’ World”. A long time ago, I made a programme that came from Pebble Mill—“Network East”—and I remember the expertise of the staff. They edited a piece on the Chelsea flower show at 7.50 pm for transmission at 8.00 pm. One can find such professionalism and dedication to the job across the whole of the BBC. As many hon. Members from the west midlands will know, when we go on the “Politics Show”, a remarkable woman—is there not always a remarkable woman?—does our make-up, acts as floor manager and provides the hospitality at the end of the programme. I am not sure what else she can include in her job. Perhaps the BBC will expect her to be a camera operator as well. That is the nature of her commitment and the commitment of the other people who work there.
The £15 million that is spent on the region is worth £28 million to the local economy, not to mention that Birmingham is the country’s second city and the geographical heart of England. That as well as skilled jobs such as journalists, researchers, engineers and producers could be lost. The pitch is that 150 skilled jobs in the area could be lost.
If the west midlands is the heart of England, Kent is the garden of England. Is the hon. Lady aware that Radio Kent, which provides many of my constituents with an excellent service, has longer listening hours throughout the week than any other BBC radio station? That is why it is vital to retain top-quality programmes and stations for our constituents.
The hon. Lady serves her constituents well by making such an important point and I hope that the BBC is listening to her. It is not only the skilled jobs that will go; the local news dimension and the cutting edge digital production will be lost. Once lost, such skills will never be regained.
The west midlands is one of the most diverse areas. When BBC operations moved from Pebble Mill to the Mailbox, Mark Thompson said that great cities such as Birmingham were central to his vision of the BBC. None the less, it is the future on which I wish to focus. In the midlands, there is a different a pool of talent from that in London. Broadcasting there offers opportunities for a first step in the media. Outreach work is carried out across the midlands and includes projects such as BBC News School Report, the International School and the university of Birmingham sports partnership in which, hopefully, it will be recognised that women can play sport and that there is a gender balance to be achieved.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that these cuts are having an effect on regional sports? For example, there are fears that the cuts, particularly those in London, will take away 95% of the coverage of rugby league, which is hugely popular in my constituency.
Oh dear. I thought that the hon. Gentleman was listening. I was voicing not official party policy, but my concerns. I tend to look at the future and worry about things. The hon. Gentleman should be aware that such a move is a possibility. It is not one with which I agree. People have actually starved to secure the channel S4C, and it should remain in Wales, which is the most wonderful country. Let me press on now.
Each generation has seen the BBC achieving new successes. Programmes such as “Doctor Who” have been reworked and old legends such as “Merlin” have been broadcast. Savings can be found by curbing the excessive salaries of the so-called stars.
Yes, Jeremy Clarkson. As I mentioned earlier, all this output costs £12 a month. If we match some of the savings with a slight increase in the licence fee—7p a day would mean a £2 increase a month—which my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby mentioned, we could stop all these cuts. We cannot have a situation in which we buy in other people’s words and pictures rather than have news reporting on the ground. I have written about this matter to Mark Thompson and the chairman, Chris Patten. The reply, which I received today, does not reassure me that any of these cuts are necessary. I urge the BBC to think again. Operating a camera, directing and editing are different skills. Mistakes are made when there is no time for research and facts are not checked. The BBC is not a throwaway institution, but an institution that nurtures new talent while celebrating the wisdom of the long-standing people who work there. The world is getting more complex; the BBC needs to expand and not contract. The message from this House must be that it has to think again.
I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee on selecting such an important subject for debate and Austin Mitchell on introducing the debate with his usual panache. Bearing in mind his current attire, I was slightly taken aback by his attack on pinstriped mandarins. Other than that, I agree with a great deal of what he said.
The motion says that the BBC is
“the most respected public service broadcaster in the world.”
From the contributions that we have heard already, it is clear that it is the best public service broadcaster in the world. It is the best because of the high quality of its output on television, radio and online. Its news is both impartial and highly trusted, which is reflected in the fact that it produces only 27% of television news, yet secures 72% of all news viewing.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point about television. The same is true of radio, and local radio in particular. BBC Radio Merseyside and other regional radio programmes achieve high listening figures among the over-65s. The loss of such a service will be a blow to those people. Is it not true that the core of the BBC’s business is its regional news service and it should rethink its decision?
Let me just say to the hon. Gentleman that I will discuss local radio a little later in my speech. The BBC provides a significant training function for many parts of broadcasting—not just for the BBC. One of the things that has not been mentioned is the vital role that local radio provides as the training ground for many of the people who go on to be national news presenters or who get involved in national news production. The intangibles of the BBC are many and varied. It is, for example, one of the best technological innovators. We have seen that with the fantastic success of the iPlayer, which, I think, will be replicated when we have the launch of YouView some time next year.
The BBC also makes a huge contribution to the creative industries in this country. We are well aware not only of its technological and training achievements but of the way in which it provides support for fantastic orchestras and for the Proms. It will make a huge contribution to the 2012 Cultural Olympiad. The BBC, in the many ways in which it operates, is critical to this country. We have already seen a number of cuts to its service. Under the previous Government, huge cuts were required. Indeed, it has already had to find savings of about £1 billion since 1998. That has included reductions in senior management and in salaries and that could go still further.
I was delighted that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby referred to the crucial role that the National Audit Office is now playing in scrutinising the accounts of the BBC. I was very pleased indeed when that role was introduced by the coalition Government.
Before I come on to the cuts, I want to address one other matter that worries me—and this is a criticism of the Government. At a time when the BBC has to deal with these significant problems, some of its attention will be diverted by the Leveson inquiry. It was wrong for the remit of that inquiry to be widened to include broadcasting when there are so many other important issues that need to be addressed.
It is absolutely right that the BBC cannot be immune from the cuts that are facing the public sector at the current time. Lord Patten, the new chairman of the BBC Trust, was right to say that it should be possible to run an outstanding broadcaster on £3.5 billion a year. While the hon. Member for Great Grimsby was castigating the Secretary of State earlier on in his contribution, he should have been aware that the size of the cuts imposed on the BBC could have been considerably higher had the Chancellor required the BBC to fund the free licence fee for the over-75s. Some credit must go to the Secretary of State for his role in ensuring that the cuts were not as great as they could have been. Nevertheless, there are serious cuts facing the organisation and additional responsibilities that it must take on. It is not surprising, therefore, that the director-general has said that the BBC simply cannot take on further responsibilities if there are further cuts coming down the track.
The work that the BBC has done over 30 or 40 years of violence in Northern Ireland is a credit to public broadcasting, but would the BBC not do itself more good if it were more transparent and, for instance, revealed exactly how much each presenter and employee gets? The public have a right to know.
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman is aware that the BBC has already made great strides in making public that information, but with some individuals there will be issues of commercial confidentiality and contractual relations. It is difficult but the BBC has made progress, and I hope that if we enable the National Audit Office to consider these issues, more information will be forthcoming.
As I said, these are deeply challenging issues, and they include the increased responsibilities of the BBC. Unlike the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, I am pleased that the World Service will come within the wider remit of the operation of the BBC. That will be to the benefit of the excellent World Service, which reaches 165 million people around the globe every week. I recently visited the Arabic and Persian services, which are doing fantastic work and whose contribution during the Arab spring has been immeasurable. We should be praising their work. However, bringing the World Service and the BBC together will bring real benefits. I am pleased that Members on both sides of the House raised concerns about the level of cuts to the World Service—we should all be concerned about that—but I am pleased that additional funding has been found, and I hope that we can find more to ensure that it can continue its excellent work.
I am pleased that, with the management arrangements for taking on some of the responsibility for S4C having been sorted out, the channel now has a secure future, which means that it can continue to provide an excellent service through its Welsh-language service not only to the people of Wales but to the growing diaspora of Welsh people throughout the rest of the country.
I am perfectly sanguine about the need for the BBC to make a contribution towards the roll-out of high-speed broadband. After all, it is part of the BBC’s remit that it delivers services and helps to develop different platforms. It is right, therefore, that it is involved in high-speed broadband roll-out, although I would say to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—I have said this to him several times—that one contribution that the BBC could make but is not allowed to make as much as it would like is on demand management to help people to understand the benefits of high-speed broadband and to provide training activities.
I am lucky enough to be the chairman of the all-party group on the BBC, and recently we held a meeting at which Lord Patten and the director-general, Mark Thompson, came before the group to answer questions about its Delivering Quality First plan. It will not surprise Members that more than 50% of questions asked were about local radio and expressed concern about the cuts. I want to make it clear that I join all Members who urge the BBC to think again about the cuts. They are seriously damaging. As a proportion of radio stations’ budgets, the cuts might seem small but, as the hon. Member for Great Grimsby said, given that a high percentage of their budgets will go on fixed costs, the impact on many local radio stations’ cash budgets—used on programmes and to pay presenters—will be significant and do great damage.
I have already mentioned the training issue. I simply do not understand why something as important to so many of our constituents as local radio is under attack like this. It is worth remembering that about 20% of people listen only to local radio. It is a lifeline for such people, particularly older people and the disabled. I hope that the BBC will reconsider that matter, just as I hope that it will look again at regional television. After all, regional television provides journalists with particular insights into, and an understanding of, what is happening in a locality that cannot be reflected by people stuck in Salford, Cardiff, Bristol or wherever.
I hope very much that the BBC will consider one other issue that has not been raised so far today but which has been raised by members of the all-party group: the BBC’s coverage of European issues. It is concerning, for instance, that the BBC has not yet implemented the 2005 Wilson report, which recommended additional training to journalists about the operation of the European Union. Bearing in mind how important the EU is to this country, it is worrying that the only major programme covering European issues, “The Record Europe”, might be axed.
There is one area where the Government could quickly do something to assist the BBC. I find this matter bizarre. In the vast majority of the world, if someone were running a satellite or cable programme, they would be begging to have on their platform the programmes that the BBC produces. They would be paying it to make that contribution. The Government need urgently to address what are called in the jargon “retransmission fees”. If Virgin does not charge, other than for the costs of the operation, to have BBC programmes as part of its popular package, I must question whether it is now appropriate for Sky to receive so much money from the BBC. I urge the Government to look at that.
I end where I began. Notwithstanding the forthcoming cuts, I am confident that the BBC, despite all the changes taking place, will continue to be not only, as the motion states, the most respected public service broadcaster in the world but the best public service broadcaster in the world.
In joining colleagues to make the case for local radio, I want to focus on three points. First, the cuts being made to local radio are unfair and disproportionate. Secondly, they will have not only an immediate impact on service but a long-term effect that could threaten the very future of local radio. Thirdly, echoing a comment by Mark Pritchard, these decisions are being made by a London-based management who appear not to understand the nature of their service or listeners outside the capital.
I want to illustrate these points with reference to Radio Sheffield, which is a successful station that broadcasts from the heart of my constituency and throughout south Yorkshire and which is listened to by 244,000 people every week. That equates to a remarkable 19% penetration of its potential market. On average, those people listen to Radio Sheffield for eight hours every week. I have to declare an interest as a regular listener of Radio Sheffield too. I shall declare another interest: I also listen regularly to Radio 4. I recognise, however, that Radio 4 has a significantly smaller audience across the country than the 7.5 million people who listen to local radio.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one reason people are so loyal to their local radio stations is the variety they provide: there is the heavy speech content in the morning, followed by a variety of music, plugs for local events and so on in the lunch-time and afternoon shows, followed by the interesting speech content mix in the drive-time shows. That variety means loyal listeners.
I agree with the hon. Lady about the variety and local roots of those different strands of the local radio offer.
It is important not only to consider the aggregate total of people who listen to local radio but to take note that one third—2.5 million people—of those people do not listen to any other BBC station and that, as Mr Foster pointed out, almost one fifth listen to no other radio station at all. Yet while the Radio 4 budget is being protected, local radio across Yorkshire is facing cuts of about 18%. What does that mean for Radio Sheffield? The current 16 hours a day of local content will be almost halved, to nine hours. From broadcasting local content every weekday from 5 am to 10 pm, we will have two local slots, one in the morning and one in the early evening. The afternoon will be filled with regional programming—joint shows with Radio York and Radio Leeds—and from 7 pm, evening local radio will effectively become, as was pointed our earlier, “Radio England”, which is complete nonsense when it comes to local radio. The loss of medium wave will bring an end to language programmes for ethnic minority communities, which are highly valued and attract a significant local listenership. We are also facing shared sports commentary, an issue to which I want to return in a moment.
Let me say how much I support the case that my hon. Friend is making for local content from Radio Sheffield, a case that I would also make for Radio Newcastle. Does he think that the cuts to local radio are consistent with the BBC’s duty to reflect and strengthen cultural identities at the local and regional levels?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, because I think the cuts conflict with that duty. The BBC has done a lot of great work over recent years in seeking to meet that aspiration and won a popular following from our minority communities in Sheffield. That is now at risk as a result of these cuts.
My concern is not only about the immediate impact, but that the transformation of the local radio offer—a significant change—will lead to a spiral of decline.
Reduced budgets will lead to falling listener numbers, which would challenge local radio’s legitimacy further and leave the London-based management in no doubt in future. Smaller audiences for local radio would lead to further cuts, reducing listeners again. That spiral of decline will ultimately bring into question the future of local radio. That must be a worry for us all, because BBC local radio is unique. No one else, in either the BBC or the commercial sector, has a similar offer. As other Members have said, research suggests that many people—particularly older people—tune in to local radio for a sense of connection with their communities. A MORI study for Ofcom indicates that older people are more likely to listen to the radio at least five days a week, with 87% of those over 55 doing so. That is certainly true of Radio Sheffield, whose audience’s average age is 54. Those people listen to it because it is local: it is of the community and reflects that community identity.
Does the hon. Gentleman think that one of the challenges is that, looking at these issues from London, the Yorkshire dales, which I represent, and Sheffield, which he represents, may seem close, when in fact the communities there are quite different and distinct? We need to point that out to people living in White City.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point about regional identity; in fact, I was coming to that. My point about the spiral of decline is that, if evening programmes became national—“Radio England”—they would, by any definition, cease to be local, and the reason for listening to them would disappear. If afternoon programming becomes regional, the same will happen. In Sheffield, we are rightly proud of being part of Yorkshire, which is an important part of our identity. However, although Yorkshire is our region, it is not our community. Yet that point—precisely the point that the hon. Gentleman makes—is not understood by the BBC management in London.
Let me illustrate that by reference to the plans for shared sports coverage. Sport is very popular with Radio Sheffield audience, and I have no doubt that the same is true around the country. Nobody else provides that service, and on a Saturday afternoon, the station is the most popular station on the dial in south Yorkshire. One in four radio listeners are tuned in to Radio Sheffield. However, under the BBC plans, when Sheffield United play at Elland Road—as we will next year when we are promoted: I have to declare another interest at this point—the commentary will be provided by Radio Leeds. I recently pointed out to the director-general of the BBC—at the meeting to which the right hon. Member for Bath referred—that Sheffield United fans would rather switch off than listen to a Leeds-based commentary. He recognised that that was a problem and said that the BBC needed to provide more neutral football commentary—completely missing the point. As a Sheffield United fan, I listen to Radio Sheffield’s away commentary precisely because it is not neutral—because it is partisan and because Keith Edwards knows the club inside out and cares about it, just as I do.
As a blades supporter, I can understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Does he agree, however, that it is even more important for teams in the lower leagues—such as Grimsby Town, which is temporarily residing in the Blue Square premier league—and other local sports clubs to be covered by local radio? Without it, our 7-nil victory on Tuesday evening would not have been widely reported.
That is an incredibly important point. I worry that, when the away coverage comes from London, as under the BBC’s proposal, a whole range of clubs will fail to get any commentary.
This issue goes beyond football. Local radio works because it is partisan, because it is rooted in communities and because it identifies with people, speaking to them and for them. Take that localness away and we will take the listeners away. As I mentioned earlier, BBC local radio in England has an estimated 7.5 million listeners, an increase of around 500,000 on last year and 700,000 more than the previous year. Cutting local radio in this way, when listener numbers are going up, makes absolutely no sense. If the current consultation launched by the BBC is to have any validity, I trust that it will listen to the huge number of voices raised in support of local radio and think again.
Thank you for inviting me to speak, Madam Deputy Speaker, in this debate on a subject that is hugely important for the people of Wales—possibly temporarily, before the whole thing is moved to Bristol.
I love the BBC. I love it as one might love a cantankerous auntie or some other relation. I enjoy complaining about the BBC, in much the same way as Austin Mitchell, who introduced this debate, might enjoy complaining about the weather. I enjoy complaining about the left-wing bias and the ridiculous obsession with wind farms. In fact, about three weeks ago I even wrote a letter of complaint to the BBC—the first I have written in my life, I think. I wrote to “EastEnders”, because there was a line in it where someone said that somebody had died as a result of a bee sting. I was approached by all the apiarists in my constituency, who were outraged at the damage that that would do to beekeeping throughout Britain. I wrote to the BBC asking it to make it clear that dying from a bee sting is an incredibly rare event. When the BBC does such things on “EastEnders”, there should be a high-profile rebuttal of the idea that such events happen regularly. I am therefore taking advantage of this debate to make that rebuttal, because I do not think that the BBC issued one.
The BBC is hugely important in Wales; indeed, it is probably more important to Wales than to any other part of the country. I know that we all think that, but Wales is a proud nation, and the BBC not only delivers the same thing to Wales as to the rest of Britain, but actually underpins the culture of Wales. The BBC in Wales has its own orchestra. The BBC is absolutely part of Welsh culture. It does a terrific amount of work for our unique language—Welsh, the language of heaven. It is not just S4C that has been involved in that, but the BBC, which has played such an important part in developing the language. Indeed, it is one of the success stories when it comes to the world’s minority languages, and we have to recognise the role the BBC has played in that.
The BBC, through its coverage of the National Assembly for Wales, is also playing a huge part in the development of the political identity of Wales. I am unashamedly Welsh through and through, and I have been incredibly proud of the work the BBC has done to make Wales an identifiable nation since devolution became a reality in 1999. I am also proud of the work it is continuing to do, and I do not want to see it stop.
The truth is, however, that the BBC had to reduce its costs. The reduction in the licence fee—what we call BBC cuts—is an entirely reasonable expectation. The Government obviously have an influence on the licence fee in its discussion with the BBC, and vulnerable people must be protected. The BBC licence fee is a regressive tax, which impacts more on the poorer in society than on the wealthy. At a time when the whole nation faces difficult economic and financial circumstances—we cannot be sure how long they will last—it would be completely wrong for the BBC not to make a contribution through the licence fee. I am fully supportive of the reduction in the level of the licence fee.
I want to make three points; the first is about S4C. One of the BBC cuts is for S4C funding to the tune of a little less than £80 million a year. This is the first chance I have had to speak on this since serving on the Committee considering the Public Bodies Bill, which was effectively taken over by the issue for a significant part of its work. It helped all of us to understand the impact of the BBC in Wales. I received 1,100 e-mails about the proposed changes in the Public Bodies Bill, which people feared would give the BBC excessive influence over S4C. I sought assurances from the Minister and was very encouraged by those I received. What we found in the end is that the result has been a terrific score. I thus wanted in this Chamber to say a huge thank you to those who delivered the agreement between the BBC and S4C, which has produced what is as close to an operationally independent S4C in Wales as could be hoped for. We feared that that would not happen, but the matter has been laid to rest. I also want to mention the BBC National Trustee for Wales, Elan Closs Stephens, who played a terrific part in bringing about that agreement, which needs to be publicly recognised.
My second point is about English language broadcasting in Wales—an issue also raised by the former controller of BBC Wales in a recent high-profile speech. Many Wales MPs have been so focused on the future operational independence of S4C that we have perhaps not argued as strongly as we should have for Wales to have its fair share of English language production. It hurt me a little when I read in the report of the former controller of BBC Wales that Welsh politicians did not fight remotely as hard for English language broadcasting in their country as the Scots did. I thought that that was a challenge to us. One reason I wanted to speak in today’s debate was to try to make it certain that Welsh politicians started fighting for their share of English language broadcasting in Wales. It is not just a matter of S4C; it is about English language broadcasting as well.
Valerie Vaz suggested looking at the issue like an accountant to see whether BBC broadcasting in Wales could be transferred to Bristol. I can see that making a lot of sense from an accountant’s point of view, but my hon. Friend Alun Cairns and other hon. Friends leapt to our feet like startled rabbits when we heard that. That is how we felt. I could not believe that anybody could possibly make such a suggestion—even in jest. It struck me that at that stage not a single Member from Wales from any party other than the Conservatives must have heard it. I would have thought that Opposition Members, including Nick Smith who was not in his place at that stage, would have leapt to their feet, too.
The hon. Gentleman is being slightly unfair or failing to understand the point I was making. It was a simple one. I meant that if it was a question of costs, then there was such a possibility. It is not on anybody’s agenda, but I thought that, just by saying it, perhaps the situation could be saved.
I thank the hon. Lady. When she made that suggestion, it was the first time that I had ever heard it. Perhaps this is the quickest ever way to save a situation—three quarters of an hour after what the hon. Lady said. That seems promising, but the suggestion itself is so unreasonable and outrageous that one cannot even contemplate it. My own view is that if changes have to be made, perhaps we could move Bristol to Cardiff.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I am sorry I had slipped out of the Chamber when that remark was made. I do not think anything serious was meant by it. I believe that the BBC Cardiff operation is fantastic. As we all know, it is the home of “Doctor Who”. I cannot believe that the significant investment made by BBC Wales in Cardiff in recent years will be overtaken by a move across the nearby channel.
I think I will pass on that one.
My third point is about political coverage in Wales. The new controller of BBC Wales has produced a plan for the future. On the face of it, the plan is a worry for politicians, particularly those based here in Westminster. It looks as if political coverage in Wales, particularly of politics in Westminster, will be reduced. If that happened, it would be a huge concern for me. I am reassured that it will not. We will have to wait and see the extent to which transferring the production of programmes from BBC Wales to the private sector happens. I gather that one programme in particular will be commissioned by the private sector. Let us wait and see how it works out and whether it delivers the same level of political coverage that we have been used to.
My feeling—this is a criticism I have made of the BBC in the past and I have heard Opposition Members express the same concern—is that coverage of Westminster politics is not as strong as it should be. It is more convenient for the BBC, given that it is located in Cardiff, to contact Members of the National Assembly and to relate to them. It is more difficult for it relate to Members of Parliament. It places a responsibility on us to make sure that we are noticed and that the BBC reports what we do. It is a serious concern, and I believe that over the next couple of years, we will have to look at whether the changes to the BBC in Cardiff actually deliver what the controller tells us they are going to deliver. I hope that our fears will not prove to be worth being overly concerned about.
There is no doubt that the BBC faces a huge challenge. The reductions in the licence fee and in the investment that the BBC can make are going to mean an awful lot of changes, but £3.5 billion is a huge amount of money. My view is that the BBC will return to the swaggering, confident self it used to be but has perhaps not been for the last couple of years, so that I can start to feel comfortable complaining about the BBC again. I look forward to regaining some of the pleasure I have often taken from that.
I thank the long list of Members who have put pressure on a tight time scale to enable us to debate this important issue. In my brief speech I shall highlight, as others have already, the important and valuable local identity and distinctiveness—a phrase to which I shall return time and again—of the BBC’s output. I shall focus on local radio, but I shall also say something about the importance of local investigative journalism on television.
As part of its Delivering Quality First project, BBC local radio is expected to find savings of some 12%, but for some reason BBC Tees, my local radio station, is expected to find savings of 20%. There is no transparency and no rationale for the disproportionate cuts that my local station is expected to absorb, which will pose a severe risk to its link with its listeners and the local identity and distinctiveness that are rightly cherished.
Delivering Quality First states that the BBC Trust wants to
“protect the five editorial priorities that the Director-General has identified: news; children’s programming; UK drama and comedy; knowledge programming; and the coverage of events of national importance.”
I certainly agree that the corporation should concentrate its licence fee expenditure on the output that most people expect from it, but I also believe that local radio is the section of its output that seems most personal to, and most owned by, the licence fee payer. Many people have diligently paid their licence fees year in year out, and do not use other parts of the BBC’s service such as iPlayer or BBC 3. Local listeners feel very close to local presenters, and I think that BBC radio is the best broadcasting example of localism in action. That is certainly true of BBC Tees, as is reflected in its record listening figures and the fact that its audience satisfaction rates are at an all-time high.
I am not sure that the BBC’s actions comply with the trust’s wish to ensure that it
“continues to improve the extent to which its services resonate with all the UK’s nations, regions and communities.”
If anything, its proposals for BBC Tees drive a coach and horses through the special and distinctive service offered by local radio. I see that my hon. Friend Ian Lavery is present. I must point out, with the greatest respect to my hon. Friend, that communities in Teesside often have little in common with communities in Tyneside and Wearside. I predict that if the cuts go ahead and programming is shared between my area and, for instance, his, the listener engagement and interaction that constitute an important part of any local radio station’s activity will cease.
The corporation has stated that staple programmes such as the breakfast show and the early evening drive-time show will be protected. That seems to suggest that teams, indeed armies, of people are allocated to specific local radio programmes, which is certainly not the case at BBC Tees. I am struck by the amount of multitasking that is involved in producing, presenting, and investigative journalism. It is not unusual for Ali Brownlee, for example, to present a football show on, say, a Tuesday evening, reporting on what is invariably a defeat for Middlesbrough, and then to serve as anchor for the breakfast show a few hours later.
I second my hon. Friend’s support for Ali Brownlee. I also pay tribute to Mark Drury, another member of the BBC Tees sport team. However, given the record-setting losing form of Hartlepool this season, I should have thought that my hon. Friend would be much more appreciative of the station’s coverage of Middlesbrough and, indeed, Guisborough Town football clubs.
May I now strike a serious note, and ask my hon. Friend whether it is not rather dangerous that northern BBC stations such as BBC Tees are being subjected to cuts of more than 20% while their southern counterparts are being subjected to cuts in single figures?
I admire and respect my hon. Friend’s championing of Guisborough Town, of which I understand he is the president, but I should prefer to draw a veil over Hartlepool United’s appalling home record of seven defeats in a row. I think it best not to talk about that.
I agree with my hon. Friend’s point about access to local sport provision. My only criticism of BBC Tees is that it gives far too much coverage to a local non-league team called Darlington.
I am not sure that such practices as the sharing of afternoon or evening shows will ensure that those 20% savings are achieved. The excellent John Foster show, which is broadcast between 2pm and 4pm, benefits from the resources of a presenter and a producer who doubles up as a broadcast assistant. There is hardly a huge amount of fat or inefficiency in BBC local radio, at least in my area. I fear that the loss of jobs and expertise will inevitably result in a deterioration in programme quality, not through the fault of BBC staff, but simply because they will have too much to do. Audiences will decline because they will no longer experience that sense of local identity and distinctiveness.
The hon. Gentleman refers to the limited fat in local BBC stations. Len Tingle, who followed me around for a day last year, persuaded his wife to accompany him on a day out in the Dales and an evening at a B and B. She ended up carrying all his bags and acting as cameraman in the evening. I think that that shows how hard local journalists are working day in, day out.
I entirely agree.
Another aspect of the local identity and distinctiveness to which I have referred is the fierce passion for and loyalty to an area. My hon. Friend Paul Blomfield, in a far more eloquent speech than I could ever make, presented the case for ensuring that local radio stations are partisan in that sense. It is significant that BBC Tees’s strapline is “proud of where we live”. The station’s championing of new renewable and offshore wind technology in the area is second to none, and its advocacy of the area during the loss of the steel plant in Redcar and its unconfined joy when the plant was sold as a going concern to SSI showed that it would always fight Teesside’s case. While he is still in the Chamber, let me pay tribute to my hon. Friend Tom Blenkinsop for ensuring that the plant and its workers remained on Teesside.
Much of that passion for and pride in the station derives from its staff. The presenters, journalists and production staff at BBC Tees are all professionals, and fiercely loyal to the region. Most of the presenters were born and raised in the area, which has given them a knowledge of and affinity with the area that is unsurpassed in any other broadcasting medium. Both Ali Brownlee and John Foster, the former breakfast show host who now presents the afternoon show, were born in Middlesbrough. Neil Green, who currently presents the drive-time show, was born in Hartlepool, was a teacher in the area, and still lives in my constituency. It is important to bear in mind that those people use the same services as their listeners.
Such loyalty and passion, however, are not the same as slavish devotion. The quality of the journalism on the station is extremely high and challenging. I can certainly say, as an elected representative, that we are not given an easy ride when being questioned by presenters. I certainly was not given an easy ride this week when I was questioned about the autumn statement, along with Ian Swales. The station’s passion for ensuring that local politics is viewed in the context of what we do here in Westminster is very valuable.
In the run-up to last year’s general election, all the candidates for the seat that I now represent went to the BBC Tees studio, where we were questioned and challenged by Neil Green, who also fielded calls from listeners and prospective voters for well over an hour. It is difficult to think of another widely used, indeed universal, medium that would allow such direct democratic challenge, such professionalism, and such reach to and interaction with our constituents. Because many people in my area do not have access to the internet, e-mail or social media, BBC local radio is the sole means by which citizens can question people in positions of authority or people who are standing for election.
Does my hon. Friend agree that local radio stations such as the Greater Manchester station not only give our constituents a chance to challenge us throughout the year, but give us a chance to garner support for important local and regional campaigns, such as the campaigns for the Manchester hub and my own campaign here for the teaching of emergency life support skills?
I entirely agree. As I said earlier, BBC local radio can serve as a champion for particular issues.
In the time left to me, I want to outline my concerns about the cuts to local investigative journalism. The “Inside Out” programme provides in-depth and important local journalism. It is comparable in quality and scope to Granada’s “World in Action” in the 1970s and 1980s, and no other current broadcaster or programme, with the possible exception of Channel 4’s “Dispatches”, is able to match it. In my region, its exposé on Southern Cross care homes and investigation into the supply chain used by the businesses of Mike Ashley, the owner of Newcastle United, were important and showed investigative journalism at its best. The 40% cut to that programme will allow those with powerful vested interests to sleep more soundly in their beds, which should be avoided.
There is, of course, cross-fertilisation between the two elements of the BBC. Local radio investigations and points put forward by listeners can feed into television journalism, and vice versa. The quality of local provision will fall as a result of these cuts, and licence fee payers in my area will receive a poorer service.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the recent policing scandals in Cleveland and my area of Yorkshire would not have been analysed properly had it not been for BBC local radio and television news?
I entirely agree. The BBC revealed the costs of those police investigations and challenged those in authority on such financial issues.
The world is getting much smaller in the sense that it is becoming ever more interconnected. People have access to news events across the world, such as the Arab spring, in a matter of seconds through BBC World Service and News 24, as well as through broadcasters such as Sky and CNN. Paradoxically, and somewhat perversely, the BBC cuts proposals will result in less local provision, but that is equally important. That should be avoided. One of the BBC’s great strengths is its local output, and that should be protected as much as possible.
It is simplistic simply to complain about the cuts the BBC is facing. We need to take into account the broader economic perspective. Instead of adopting the top-down approach of considering where savings can be made, our starting point should be to ask the following question: what do we want the BBC to do and to achieve? Let me say at the outset that I am a strong supporter of the BBC. The quality of its output is first class, and it covers subjects that no commercial operator would consider addressing. It responds positively to education and social needs and demands. As a public service broadcaster, it ticks all the boxes and more. However, in doing the “and more” part, does it stifle competition and squeeze out competitors, thereby reducing plurality of provision? A guaranteed licence fee income of £3.5 billion and a total income of £5 billion puts the BBC in a strongly favourable position compared with providers who have to deal with fluctuating advertising income and economic unpredictability.
Critics of BBC budget cuts need to recognise that it may well be able to operate more efficiently in some of the many areas of its output, and, indeed, that it might not need to operate in all those areas, as other providers may be better placed to cover them. To the credit of the BBC—and the Secretary of State for Wales—freezing the licence fee has resulted in its being forced to look at what it does, and the Delivering Quality First agenda is the outcome, although I would suggest that it should be the start of its reaching the desired outcome.
I want the BBC to start by focusing on what other providers might do and what capacity they may have for providing entertainment and information, as the BBC must ask itself how it can ensure that it strikes an appropriate balance in services and subject areas while representing all parts of the nations and regions of the United Kingdom. How can it contribute to innovation, rather than squeeze out competition? Should it operate in every area where there are commercial alternatives, such as in the market that Radio 1 covers? Plurality and news output to target audiences must be considered of course, but do we need to continue with the same traditional approach?
It may be unfashionable to mention James Murdoch at present, and I would condemn him if he were to be found guilty of any of the allegations that have been made.
If Ms Harman wants to intervene on that point, I will happily respond.
James Murdoch has highlighted that when some years ago Radio 2 was losing its target audience of 24 to 45-year-olds, it paid millions of pounds to recruit Jonathan Ross to try to regain those listeners even though commercial operators already addressed that audience. If that is not an example of the BBC squeezing out competition, I do not know what is.
Does it make sense for the BBC to cover sporting events that ITV, Channels 4 or 5 or Sky would like to broadcast? I agree that we need to look at what should be free to air and whether pay per view is appropriate in all areas, but let us consider the example of Formula 1. The BBC has paid £300 million to screen Formula 1 over a five-year period. That amounts to £3 million per race, yet Sky will also broadcast every race. The partnership between Sky and the BBC is a significant and positive step forward, as it is certainly better than the previous situation of their competing outright, but two issues remain unresolved. First, could not ITV, Channels 4 or 5 or another broadcaster screen that popular sport? Secondly, the simple fact of the BBC bidding with public money will drive up the price and squeeze opportunities for others.
I recognise that the quality of the BBC can give it an edge over other broadcasters, but I remind Members that the BBC covered test match cricket for a long time, but the greatest innovations in the coverage of the sport occurred when the broadcasting rights were won by Channel 4 and then Sky, who took coverage to a much more sophisticated level. Innovations such as Hawk-Eye were introduced and a more informal approach to cricket attracted more viewers and new audiences.
I pay tribute to the BBC’s website coverage, which has set the standard for such output. It covers national and regional news in a structured way, and addresses subject matters across the spectrum from hard news to social gossip. It is an excellent example of the innovation the BBC can achieve. Yet if it continues to dominate this part of the market, that could prevent other providers—newspapers, broadcasters or even new entrants—from having the opportunity to innovate. The BBC set excellent standards, but it needs to consider whether there should be a subsequent, partial withdrawal when the market has matured.
I strongly support the BBC’s activities in areas where the market cannot provide. News in general is extremely important, and without the BBC’s news activities in many parts of the UK there simply would not be any coverage of significant news or social or cultural events. Wales and Scotland are of particular relevance in this regard, especially with the advent of devolution.
Other Members have talked about local television, so I shall now briefly address a parochial issue. The UK press does not always cover Wales as adequately as it should. This is where the BBC comes into its own of course, but in Wales its implementation of the Delivering Quality First agenda involves a squeeze on its political coverage. It argues that news is not being cut under the current proposals, yet there is a reduction in political output. Politics is news, so there is obviously a cut to news.
Although the BBC has, to its credit, responded well to devolution, that should not be achieved at the cost of coverage of non-devolved matters. Over recent years, there has been a trend to reduce political coverage on mainstream news outlets. Welsh questions have been covered on a mainstream outlet in Wales since 1987, but under current proposals that will no longer be the case.
Does my hon. Friend agree that Members of all parties must not stand back on this issue? Instead, we must raise our voices to complain, as a former controller of the BBC has urged, so that we in Wales get the coverage we deserve?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, and in his speech he highlighted that very point, and I underline it and pay tribute to it. Let us all have confidence about complaining to the BBC when we are unhappy so that it can respond. If we do not air issues and concerns, how will the BBC know about them?
I recognise that we, as politicians, are not the most popular people in the world. I would suggest, however, that some of the issues we debate are at least sometimes relevant to mainstream outlets in the nations and regions of the UK. There is no proposal to change coverage on the English regional output—granted, there will be local changes to BBC radio in England, but in Wales that situation does not exist.
While I am discussing Wales-related issues, I want to join my hon. Friend Glyn Davies in recognising the deal on S4C and I pay tribute to the BBC and the Secretary of State for delivering what he promised at the outset: a channel that was well funded, secure in its funding for the future and operationally and editorially independent. There were many sceptics in the debate, but even they have now been won over. I support the tribute that was paid to Elan Closs Stephens and to the chairman of S4C, Huw Jones, at the end of the negotiations, despite some of the difficult tensions among the membership of the authority.
Let me return to the broader issues. I know that the BBC has made significant progress on salary levels, but there remains scope for some further progress, particularly in relation to talent. I know that Graham Norton’s deal reduced from £16.9 million over three years to £4 million over two.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, especially as I just came into the Chamber a few minutes ago. He talks about salaries at the BBC. Would he take this opportunity to make a comment about Jeremy Clarkson and say something about responsibilities coming with salaries?
I would certainly underline that point, but we should bear the context in mind. I did not see the broadcast and although I have read some reports about it, I would like to watch it before I comment specifically. I have no doubt that the Secretary of State will refer to it when he sums up.
I was talking about salary levels and progress has been made, but Graham Norton still earns £4 million over two years. I am sure that if that amount was squeezed further, he probably would not walk. Reference has already been made to the fact that David Dimbleby earns £15,000 per episode. Anne Robinson’s salary was cut from £4 million over two years to £2 million over two years. Demand for such roles clearly outstrips supply and the BBC has a fantastic ability in developing talent. It generates the supply as well as satisfying the demand. There is no excuse for paying such salaries to those people.
Does my hon. Friend agree that work needs to be done to ensure that management salaries at the BBC in London and the south are much more equitable with management salaries and executive salaries in the north?
I am grateful for that point. The ultimate test is transparency and that is an area where the BBC has taken some small steps. For comparison, the agenda of the Government as regards local authorities, where every invoice in excess of £500 is published, leads me to expect the BBC to go that way, too. That greater transparency would allow people to judge and would better inform the BBC about its judgments and, no doubt, misjudgments, on occasion.
In the minute I have left, let me refer to Professor Anthony King’s report about how the BBC must better reflect the nations and regions of the United Kingdom on the network. It has taken some positive steps. For example, “Doctor Who” has been highlighted in this debate and it is now filmed and produced in Cardiff. There is a significant shift to Salford, too, but that does not get away from the fact that television from the nations and regions of the UK about the nations and regions of the UK should be broadcast on the network. Let me highlight, for example, “Boys from the Blackstuff”, a pioneering programme about Merseyside that educated significant numbers of people about some of the culture there. “Auf Wiedersehen, Pet” was a programme that made the north-east attractive to many people, and it brought it out through the characters. We need to see more of that sort of innovation and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to highlight it.
I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee on giving us this debate today and the Members who called for it, particularly Martin Vickers and my hon. Friends the Members for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) and for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). I called for such a debate in my Westminster Hall debate on this issue, because I feel very strongly that we must ensure that the BBC and the Government understand the depth and strength of feeling on the issue. More than 50 MPs tried to speak in the Westminster Hall debate—obviously, not all of them could get into a 90-minute slot, so this is a welcome opportunity to extend the number of voices heard in Parliament on this topic. Those voices need to be heard.
The BBC Trust is planning to achieve savings of about £670 million a year by 2016-17, with a net loss of about 2,000 jobs across the piece. The £670 million-worth of savings identified will be lumped together with £30 million of savings generated by exceeding the targets for the BBC’s current efficiency programme, which will result in total savings by 2017 of 20%. By anybody’s standards, that is a fairly significant cut in funding for our public broadcaster. The question is: why is that being done? Why are we seeing that level of cuts?
We know that the cost of the licence fee has been frozen until 2017, yet it has gone up by just £10 since 2007 and now costs just over £12 a month for all the TV, radio, websites and live events covered by the BBC. That compares with about £60 a month for some subscription services and, as the National Union of Journalists has pointed out, if all the current licence fee-paying households contributed just 7p extra a day, the cuts could be stopped. It is important to underline the facts that lie behind the measures that we are discussing. It is critical to point that out.
Of course, everybody has been talking today about what is good about the BBC. Many people have drawn attention to “Doctor Who” and I think it is worth drawing attention to some of the very expensive programmes made by the BBC, which are among the most loved of its output. “Frozen Planet”, for instance, is an amazing series. Everybody is now aware of the images of the criminal penguins that are doing the rounds on the BBC. “Springwatch” and “Autumnwatch” are very expensive programmes to make, but their educational value, never mind their entertainment value and their value in raising awareness of the environment, means that I would hate to see them disappear from the BBC’s output. They must be expensive to make—they are live and they involve a lot of filming over a long time.
As I said, everybody has mentioned “Doctor Who”, but I would also mention “Torchwood”, which, in my view, is one of the best programmes on the BBC. The maker of “Doctor Who” and “Torchwood” is Russell T Davies, who is one of the best programme makers of my generation. Mr Foster mentioned this earlier—I wonder whether Russell T Davies would be the programme maker he is today without the investment in developing good programme makers that we have had from the BBC in the past. I would not like to see people like Russell T Davies walk away from the BBC. They are amazing and creative people and that quality makes the BBC better than any other public service broadcaster in the world.
I must confess that I do not watch “Mad Men”. I want to focus on the output of the BBC today.
In the end, the cuts to local radio proposed by the BBC are the most worrying. As the NUJ has pointed out, under the plans 22% of local radio output will go at a time when listening figures are going up. Current affairs and investigative programming will be badly affected across the board, but 40% of the reductions are outside London, which will have a disproportionate impact on local radio broadcasting. On top of that, as my hon. Friend Paul Blomfield pointed out, output will go regional at local level, which is a contradiction, at 1 pm. Drive-time broadcasting will be local but then output will go national after 6 pm. On Sundays, local broadcasting will finish at 1 pm. The total reduction in local broadcasting is somewhere in the region of 50%. We have had a pilot on afternoon regional programmes in South Yorkshire and it did not work. Many of the people in South Yorkshire who would tune in to Paulette Edwards tuned out as soon as they realised it had gone regional. As I said in the Westminster Hall debate, we are not parochial but we listen to local radio for a reason—because we want to hear about local news, local politics and local concerns. If we wanted to go regional or national, we would tune in to another station.
Local radio serves a very important purpose and delivers to a specific socio-demographic audience, as was pointed out earlier. The point has been made about the age profile of Radio Sheffield, but it should also be placed on the record that two thirds of the station’s audience are classed as C2DE—in other words it has a working-class audience. Many of those people listen to no other station than BBC Radio Sheffield. It is true that Radio 2 and Radio Hallam get a bigger audience in South Yorkshire, but the reach and audience of Radio Sheffield is significantly higher than the 12% Radio 4 weekly audience of 157,000 and the audience of Radio 5 Live, which reaches 126,000 listeners across the week—just 9.9%.
It is crucial that the BBC Trust gets this decision right. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central pointed out how passionately people believe in their local radio station, and I want to underline that point. What we enjoy about Radio Sheffield is the diversity of its output and the way it connects with its audience.
This is a critical point. My hon. Friend made some funny comments about the sports coverage on Radio Sheffield and I point out that fans of Barnsley FC, Doncaster FC and Rotherham FC also rely on Radio Sheffield for distinctive and very partisan coverage. We must maintain that. I will counterbalance the point he made about Sheffield United by pointing out that Sheffield Wednesday fans, of whom I am one, are also keen Radio Sheffield listeners. On his point about Sheffield United playing Leeds United next year when they are promoted, I must say that they will have to get past Sheffield Wednesday first—they are fifth in the table and we are second—so we will see how that goes.
I want to emphasise the loyalty that there is for BBC local radio. Last Saturday, I was out canvassing in Penistone picking up lots more Labour votes—the swing to us there is quite significant—and I found what one lady said particularly interesting. She said, “I know who you are: I hear you on Radio Sheffield.” One thing that Radio Sheffield does is debate local politics in a very fair and balanced way, giving it significant coverage. She went on to say, “I absolutely love Radio Sheffield and Toby Foster—there’s nobody else I would listen to in the morning.” A lot of people would say the same about Rony Robinson, Paulette Edwards, Howard Pressman and all the other broadcasters on Radio Sheffield. That is the point—the proposals put forward by the trust will have a disproportionate impact on local radio. It must listen, take note and change its plans. I also think that the Government should think again about freezing the licence fee.
“While we understand that the BBC needs to make savings to meet the terms of its licence fee settlement, we do not”— the word “not” is underlined—
“accept that this should inevitably lead to its most distinctive output being diluted.”
Even commercial radio understands the role that local radio has to play in delivering cultural, political and social services to the people of this country. I urge the House to support the motion.
It is a great pleasure to follow Angela Smith. I am very much enjoying all this football banter between northern Members of Parliament and finding out about all these broadcasters who I had not heard of, such as Ali Brownlew and Toby Foster. I am going to have to tune into some local radio services in the north-east. Obviously, they provide a first-class service; we would not expect anything else from local radio in the north-east.
Hon. Members might be surprised to hear that I am not going to speak about local services. I am going to speak about national services, but not those provided by the wonderful Radio 4, Radio 2 and Radio 1. I am going to talk about the impact of the cut on national services in Scotland. We will experience a disproportionate cut compared with that across the United Kingdom.
Scotland is not a region—it is a nation, and a nation needs a specific type of broadcasting capability available to it. We have our own national Parliament, which as everybody knows has many significant legislative powers. We have our own civic institutions, we have our own legal system and we provide education and health services entirely differently to the rest of the UK. As everyone knows, we have our own national culture and we require that to be reported in a remarkably different way to any other region in the United Kingdom. That is why it is absolutely critical that we get the correct resources to ensure that our nation is served adequately.
Yes, is the short answer. I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for turning up today. There are two Welsh Conservative Members of Parliament present and we are hearing from Members from right across the United Kingdom, but is it not unfortunate that other than Mr Hamilton, who is here on Whip’s duty, there is not one of the 40 Labour Members from Scotland here to debate such an important and significant issue as the BBC in Scotland? It is a real tragedy that they would rather turn up and vote on English issues than discuss issues of real importance for the people of Scotland.
We need a BBC that is properly resourced to cover adequately what is happening in England, but what is happening is that one nation’s BBC services are being protected at the expense of another’s. Lots of people in Scotland like Radio 4, and when I am in London I put the Today programme on, but what we learn from the Today programme is usually about the NHS in England and education in England and Wales. I like hearing about the NHS in England and finding out what is going on within the education services in England and Wales, but that means absolutely nothing to me or my constituents. We are continually served up a diet of UK news that is totally inconsequential to Scotland.
Alun Cairns made this point and it was also pointed out by Anthony King, who produced a very good and detailed report on how the BBC broadcasts in the nations and regions. It still has things absolutely wrong.
Absolutely. That was a key feature of the King report. He said that a lot was being lost in relation to Scotland and Wales when it came to national news reporting. Sometimes, we got the funny little story at the end about going up to Loch Ness or Snowdon or somewhere and giving an amusing little anecdote to end the news, but in terms of significant reporting of news concerning Scotland, Wales and even the English regions, there was absolutely nothing.
The King report made another important point, which the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan will recall. Some English journalists had to be sent on devolution training so that they would start to understand the difference between devolved powers and reserved powers and work out how to communicate that to the rest of the nation. They still get it absolutely wrong sometimes. We get it so often that we are becoming a little tired of it in Scotland and, presumably, in Wales and possibly in some of the English regions.
A particular type of approach is required when broadcasting for a nation; we have very different requirements, in terms of how the everyday experiences of the Scottish people are reflected and reported, and how the news agenda is shaped. That is why the cuts will have a disproportionate impact on the people of Scotland. Let me detail what we will experience in Scotland. One in 10 jobs at BBC Scotland is to be lost, and there is to be a reduction of something like 16% in the total budget. BBC Scotland’s news operation and support staff will be hit hardest by the cuts. Between 100 and 120 jobs will be lost at the Pacific Quay headquarters in Glasgow by 2016-17. It is feared that production operations, and online and Gaelic services, and perhaps sport, will be cut and hurt. BBC Scotland’s news operation is to lose 30 jobs; 20 jobs will be lost at Radio Scotland. Craft and production will shelve 35 jobs, and operations and support will lose another 30. The whole future of the BBC symphony orchestra is still under review. That is on top of efficiency savings that will cost some 20 jobs.
The future of BBC Scotland’s “Newsnight Scotland” programme—affectionately known as “Newsnicht” down here—is under threat. It is an important feature of the news output and agenda in Scotland. It gives us the only opportunity that we get in the evening to go over, debate, and comment on what has emerged during the day in the Scottish Parliament, elsewhere in Scotland, or down here. I enjoy turning up at 11 o’clock in the evening to contribute to “Newsnicht”.
The problem with “Newsnight Scotland” is that although there has been an assurance from the BBC that it will be maintained, BBC 2 will be making a transition to high-definition television, and there is not the capability or opportunity for opt-outs for the nations or the regions. If the BBC is listening to this, I hope that it will tell us what it will do to ensure that we continue to get “Newsnight Scotland”, because it is a critical feature to so many people who are interested in the daily political and cultural diet in Scotland.
The Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union in Scotland says that the scale of the cuts means that it will be almost impossible to ensure that the job losses will happen through voluntary redundancies; compulsory redundancies are likely. It is so concerned about the scale of the cuts in Scotland that industrial action has been talked about, and might be a feature, unless we get the problem resolved.
People are taking the issue into their own hands in other ways, too. There is a fantastic campaign about “introducing…”, which is a little programme on Radio 1 on a Monday evening, from 10 pm to 12 midnight. There is “introducing…in Northern Ireland”, “introducing…in Wales”, and “introducing…in Scotland”. That is under threat by the BBC. They are great programmes; they give many new artists and bands a radio platform for the first time in their career. They are responsible for the early development of artists such as Paolo Nutini and
Such is the response to those little programmes on Radio 1 that a petition on the subject has already secured the signature of some 6,000 people—more, per head of population, than the petition to try to save Radio 6. That is how much concern there is about it in Scotland. That is the type of impact that there will be on local services. I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, Mr Vaizey, who will meet campaigners who are trying to save the programmes. I have not had a response from Mr Thompson; perhaps we could have a discussion about his coming to meet the campaigners, so that he can explain to them why that iconic little programme is to be shelved. The proposal is ridiculous, because it will not save any money; there will still be an “introducing…”; it will just broadcast across the United Kingdom. The individual identities of the programmes, and the opportunity for bands from Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, will be lost. You know, Madam Deputy Speaker, how passionately I feel about the music industry and opportunity for young artists. I really hope that the BBC thinks again.
I have only a few minutes left and a number of issues to raise. The reason I am so annoyed by, and angry about, the BBC cuts in Scotland is that we do not even get our population share’s-worth back from the BBC. We in Scotland are actually subsidising the BBC; we give more through the licence fee than we get back in services. I am appalled that Scotland has to subsidise the BBC for the rest of the UK, just as we have to subsidise the rest of the UK when it comes to resourcing, and the balance of payments to the Treasury. That is a feature that we have had to put up with. If we have to subsidise the BBC’s television and radio services, let us do what we can to protect the services that we have.
We will need a properly resourced BBC, because there will be a few big issues coming Scotland’s way in the next few years. We will ask the people of Scotland to make one of the most substantial and important choices that the nation has ever had; they will have the opportunity to say yes to becoming a normal, self-governing nation, like those throughout the rest of the world.
It will be in the second half of the parliamentary term, as was set out in our manifesto; that will be delivered. The BBC will have to be properly resourced to ensure that we can continue to inform the people of Scotland about this important choice. That is why we need BBC services to be properly resourced.
Back in 2005, production output from Scotland was below 4%; that was appalling, particularly given that, as I have said, we subsidise the BBC. Progress will be made on that, as the Secretary of State knows. All credit to the BBC: it has improved the situation. We are getting to close to our population share target of 9% for production, and there is a commitment to meet that target by 2016. I do not know how cutting the BBC in Scotland so dramatically will help to achieve that. Again, I would like the BBC to explain how we are to hit those production targets by 2016 if we are to cut so deep and so hard in the BBC in Scotland. I hope that the BBC recognises that what I am talking about is not a local or regional, but a national service in Scotland. Our nation is losing out.
I thank Peter “nae pals” for his contribution. Surely he should unite with everyone else on the Opposition Benches, because the same cuts are affecting all of us. Surely it would be more helpful for him to unite with the other Opposition parties, rather than arguing his single line, as he usually does.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I am four-square behind colleagues who want to ensure that regions and local areas of the United Kingdom retain services; they are losing their services at the expense of UK services such as Radio 4. Let us keep the local and national services. I say to the BBC: have another look at the impact of the cuts. Do well by the nations, the regions, and local radio.
I want to speak about the decision-making process that has been taking place over the past couple of years, which has, to be frank, been a nightmare. I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for giving us the opportunity to hold this debate. My hon. Friend Austin Mitchell set out the overall implications of Delivering Quality First. He chairs the National Union of Journalists parliamentary group, of which I am the secretary. We have lived with the process for the last two years. We have met the staff who have lost their jobs already, and the staff whose careers are now at risk.
What comes out of every one of these debates is a consensual view across the House about the importance of the BBC. It is always described as a jewel in the crown of British culture, and as setting world standards in public service broadcasting. Many Members have emphasised its critical role as a foundation stone of local and national democracy. However, as a result of Delivering Quality First, as Members have set out, there will be significant cuts over time, which not only undermines the BBC’s potential to maintain those standards but shows that there is an agenda about the long-term future of the BBC itself.
It is important to discuss how we got here. There is a lesson for future Governments about how decisions are made on the issue. Never again should we have to go through this process. This is not just a budgetary exercise. The assault on the BBC is driven by an agenda that has been set elsewhere. I remember the James Murdoch lecture in 2009 at the Edinburgh television festival, in which he set out an agenda which, regrettably, the Government are following almost to the letter. He set out the objective of the Murdoch empire to deregulate the media overall and undermine the BBC by cutting its supply of funds.
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the freezing of the licence fee has made the BBC look at its activities and, at the very least, has reduced the salaries of some of the highest-paid people in broadcasting?
There are always benefits from a process like this. My concern is about the long-term future and some of the short-term implications that the hon. Gentleman himself pointed out. We should not wander into this debate naively, because there is a separate agenda, which was set by James Murdoch at that time. The tone of sheer arrogance in that speech somewhat contrasts with the tone of his performance in the hearings by the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. In that speech, he proclaimed his advocacy of Darwinism, and he said that he believed in natural selection in all things, particularly within the media market. It was like Gordon Gekko in “Wall Street” saying, “Greed…is good.” James Murdoch proclaimed that the law of the jungle worked. It was almost Orwellian. I shall quote him exactly:
“There is an inescapable conclusion that we must reach if we are to have a better society. The only reliable, durable and perpetual guarantor of independence of the media is profit.”
That is exactly the agenda that was set. It is that philosophy in other sections of the media that has led us all the way down to the Leveson inquiry and the descent of parts of the media into the gutter. This is not a conspiracy theory. I do not need to mention the 11 occasions on which the Prime Minister has met Murdoch’s News International. I do not need to mention the six occasions on which the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport has done so, or the three occasions on which the Deputy Prime Minister has done so. I do not think that it is part of those meetings; I do not think that it is part of a conspiracy. I simply think that the Government share that agenda.
Until the hon. Gentleman began to personalise this and mention individuals, I was prepared to share some of his concerns about the Murdoch speech and some of the claims that were made. Two things should be perfectly clear. First, many Government Members feel very warmly towards the BBC, and want to enfranchise and support the tradition of public service broadcasting, which it does better than anyone else in the world. That comes not just from Back-Bench Members but, I am thrilled to say, from the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister.
The second thing is—
Order. This is an intervention, not a speech. [ Interruption. ] Yes, but interventions must be brief, and we are coming to the end—[ Interruption. ] Will the hon. Gentleman take his seat? This debate is due to end at approximately 3.15 pm, and there is a time limit for speeches of 10 minutes for Members who have been in the Chamber all afternoon. Throughout, I have implored all Members to make their interventions brief. I am not negotiating with the hon. Gentleman: I am telling him that he should make his intervention brief, and not make several points.
Thank you very much indeed, Madam Deputy Speaker, I appreciate that.
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that his position would be much stronger if he focused on the benefits—the lowering of salaries, much greater flexibility and competition in the market—as well as the negatives as he sees them?
The hon. Gentleman is a new Member, and I understand the point that he has made. Other Members have made that point. I do not want to criticise him, but if he had been here throughout the debate, he would have heard them make those specific points. I want to make my specific points, not seek to replicate or repeat other points that have been made, if that is okay with the hon. Gentleman.
I simply make this point. My concern is that this is not just a cost-cutting exercise. It is part of a political agenda that, in the long term, is aimed at undermining the BBC. It has been set outside Government—not in Government—but the Government concur with it. Secondly, I was here with Mr Foster and my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby, and was involved in discussions on the licence fee settlement. I never ever want to go through that exercise again, because it put at risk the future of a whole range of people, and that was not taken into account.
I remember the Secretary of State advising the director-general of the BBC in August 2010 that there would be a long consultation on the BBC licence fee, which would be determined the following spring. However, I also remember—my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby has alluded to this—that weekend in October, and the 48 hours in which the Government brought the BBC in and threatened it. The right hon. Member for Bath is right: the BBC was threatened either with the licence for the over-75s being taken over—in other words, a £530 million cut immediately—or it had to take on proposals on the World Service, BBC Monitor and the Secretary of State’s grandiose plans for the future of television development. It was placed in an invidious position and there were threats of resignation, which created pandemonium in the settlement process. We had thought that the process would be a rational debate that this House could shape or influence in some way, but in fact it was the grubbiest deal we have seen in any public sector settlement of recent years. The people least taken account of were the workers who supply the service itself, which I think was disgraceful. If we learn nothing else across the parties, we should learn to behave in such instances in future.
What are the implications? One implication is that the management must now implement another 1,000 job cuts on top of the 7,000 that have been made since 2004. They are implementing those cuts with exceptionally limited consultation or engagement with the unions. Agreements are being torn up before workers’ eyes with minimal consultation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby referred to the meeting of BBC NUJ reps in Belfast on
“If you’re really that unhappy, if you think that you can’t do your best work here then leave—no-one is forcing you to stay.”
That is real management empathy—unfortunately, Hansard does not do irony—with people, many of whom are about to lose their jobs. Such behaviour by management would be unacceptable in any structure, whether public or private. It resulted, for the first time in the BBC’s history, in a vote of no confidence by the staff in the director-general and his competence to manage the organisation.
I urge the BBC to pull back and start engaging in proper discussions and consultations. Otherwise, as Pete Wishart said in relation to Scotland, some unions might move towards industrial action unless there are proper negotiations and their views are taken account of properly. I agree that that raises the issue of salaries in the BBC, and not just for the stars, but for management overall. I think that it is obscene that the director-general earns four times more than the Prime Minister. As has been said, we should consider the high level of salaries throughout and, in particular, the inequality between the high and low salaries. In a public organisation that is simply unacceptable.
A number of Members have raised concerns about local radio services, and we could list them and put the lists in the House Library for Members to see, but the cuts to stations right across the piece are effectively undermining local radio as we know it. It has recently been praised very affectionately in two debates, yet BBC management does not seem to take account of the views of Members expressed here. I do not believe that S4C is safe in the long term or that the deal with hold. I think that the Government will come back for more cuts. It is not about freezing the licence fee, as I think they will come back for further cuts in future years.
I am also anxious about the World Service. The right hon. Member for Bath has worked with us on that and there has been excellent cross-party work to try to protect as much of the World Service as we can, but there have already been cuts and I think that it is still in jeopardy overall. Political coverage is being undermined not only in the regions, but nationally, as we have seen 2,000 jobs going in some of the BBC’s core political reportage.
Overall, I am deeply anxious about the settlement. The only way now is to have a proper discussion—the discussion we should have had last year. Instead of it being bounced through in 48 hours, there should have been a proper discussion and consultation, and I believe that the only way forward now is to reopen the licence fee debate.
Let me say just one final thing on two parochial matters. Several hon. Friends have mentioned the Asian Network, a service that has grown over the years into one of the country’s most popular and well received stations and brought about social cohesion as the BBC is meant to, but a 50% cut in the Asian Network will, as every Member knows, undermine that service, and it will be picked off. That is salami-slicing, and it undermines the viability of particular services.
On my local BBC radio station, Radio London, sport is one of its most popular elements, but we are now told that cricket, rugby league and rugby union will no longer be covered, and that football coverage will be curtailed. As a result of such cuts, a station eventually loses its listenership, and that in turn threatens the viability of the station itself.
That is what we are fighting for. We are fighting not just against marginal cuts, but for the future of the BBC, the future of local radio, the future of specialist services such as the Asian Network and the future of services for the nations, regions and principalities that are under threat in the longer term. The only way in which they can be saved is by breaking the Murdoch agenda, by getting back to a discussion about the BBC as a public service, the jewel in the crown, and by reopening the debate about the licence fee—so that we can have a viable BBC for the long term.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend John McDonnell, who, along with many Members, has made a fantastic speech. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend Austin Mitchell and the Backbench Business Committee on securing this important and timely debate. Many Members in the Chamber today took part in the Westminster Hall debate that was so over-subscribed and well attended, and, likewise, the topic has come up time and again at many Culture, Media and Sport question sessions over the past year, so our opportunity for a debate today in the Chamber is a timely one.
We have heard from many Members about the different casualties of the Delivering Quality First review, none more tragic than the 2,000 people throughout the BBC who will lose their jobs as a result of it. I, too, will focus on the impact of the review on local radio—and in particular, on BBC Radio Merseyside.
It is clear from every contribution so far that all Members and the public rightly cherish the BBC, which is a source of national pride because of its quality, role in our public life and commitment to educate, inform and entertain, but it is clear also that the BBC faces a huge challenge. The licence fee freeze until 2017 is the worst in its history, and, given that it has to shoulder the costs of the World Service, it is obvious that many difficult decisions need to be made.
Unfortunately, the BBC has exacerbated those difficulties by producing a set of reductions that are, in some part, fundamentally unfair: unfair because local radio faces a disproportionate cut while larger budgets are protected; unfair because local radio provides a true community service to an audience who rely on it; and unfair because the cuts will mean an end to local news-gathering and locally produced content.
The 39 BBC local radio stations throughout the UK are a unique and popular part of our media landscape, and severely reducing their output would be a huge loss. Throughout the UK, 7 million people listen to their local BBC radio service, of whom 2 million listen to no other BBC radio station. As well as being popular, BBC local radio is also value for money for the listener, costing on average 3.2p per listener hour, compared with BBC 1 on television, which costs 6.7p per viewing hour, and BBC Radio 3, which costs 6.3p per listener hour.
All in the House have seen the value of their local BBC radio station when it has come to emergencies—we heard examples of flooding—or to the disturbances this summer. BBC Radio Merseyside played a very important role in informing the public of where they should and should not travel and of where the disturbances were, and in dispelling some of the myths that popped up on social media sites.
If BBC local radio goes, we will lose a vital service that reflects, celebrates and affirms countless local identities.
If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will not, because I am conscious of the fact that one more hon. Member would like to speak before the winding-up speeches begin.
The feeling from those I talk to who work at the BBC is that local radio is being set up to lose its audience, so that it can be scrapped completely at the next licence fee settlement. I sincerely hope that that is not the case, because as a Liverpool MP I see the real value of local radio every day. That is why I have been campaigning against the cuts and why over 1,500 people signed a petition that I had on my website, which I presented to Parliament a couple of weeks ago. For many people, BBC Radio Merseyside is the voice of the city, and it is home to some of its most famous institutions, including the Roger Phillips show and the Billy Butler show. It is also hugely successful. It is the most listened to station outside London, with over 300,000 listeners who, on average, tune in for a staggering 16.2 hours a week. Yet the station will be one of the worst hit by the changes and will see its staffing funding reduced by 20%. Radio Merseyside is already run on a shoestring compared with the larger BBC services. Worse, as the majority of expenditure at the station is on fixed costs such as buildings, any budget reduction of this size cannot be made without a disproportionate loss of locally produced shows and cuts in jobs.
Given that, it is rather strange that no cuts will be made to Radio 4, which has an annual budget of £99 million—it is more than twice the size of the largest commercial station in the UK. With 66% of the licence fee spent on television, it is hard to understand why funding for BBC 1 has been cut by only 3%. I do not believe that it is impossible to find savings from these significantly larger budgets. For example, “You and Yours” is a show on Radio 4 that is aired for one hour a day, five days a week. It is a very informative programme, and I enjoy listening to it when I get the chance. However, there are more people working on that one radio show for five hours a week than there are in the entire staff complement at BBC Radio Merseyside. Is the BBC really saying that it cannot find any savings from that programme, or from its other larger radio stations or television stations? To me, it does not add up.
Alongside the reduction in funding, another planned change is the sharing of local radio programmes between groups or clusters of stations, so that at certain times of the day, instead of having individual local programmes, stations will share programmes with neighbouring city stations up to 50 miles away. Other Members have spoken about the impact that that will have in their localities. In reality, it means that there will be no local programming for large parts of the week. Localness is the DNA of local radio—the clue is in the title. Once one dilutes this service, one fundamentally changes the relationship between the provider and the listener—the licence fee payer. Local radio may be seen by senior managers as a quick and easy way to cut costs, but the listeners, who are primarily aged over 55 and in the lower socio-economic groups, and for whom local radio is not only a friend but a lifeline, do not agree. Local radio programme-sharing was tried in parts of the north in the early 1990s, and it failed to connect with audiences and to attract listeners, particularly in areas with a strong local identity such as Merseyside and Tyneside. It is true that many stations in the midlands and the south of England have been sharing programmes for some years, but they are seldom the stations with huge listening numbers.
BBC senior managers will talk about “value for money” from the licence fee. I agree that that is crucial, but the planned cuts are not equal in impact. The impact on local radio will almost certainly cut much deeper, with the likely loss of broadcast journalist jobs, including reporters and producers, reducing news coverage and programmes. Local radio therefore gets a double whammy—fewer local programmes and huge job losses, resulting in a much reduced news and information service. This comes at a time when other local news providers such as newspapers have been frantically reducing staff as they struggle to cope with the effects of the recession and influx of web-based news services. It seems that the BBC is keen to reduce service in the one area of the market where there is a discernible gap.
The BBC has said that the consultation on the Delivering Quality First proposals will be a genuine one. I have written to the BBC about this, as have many of my constituents and many Members here today. I hope that senior managers will listen to what the public are saying. To be fair, the BBC has a strong tradition of doing that, and I expect it to continue. Some press reports suggest that the BBC might be listening to the calls from various Members and that in the coming days we might see something of a U-turn on the cuts to local radio. That would surely be welcomed by all of us, as the current proposals are unfair and the BBC should rightly think again. I sincerely hope that Members on both sides of the House will support the Backbench Business Committee motion.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Austin Mitchell on initiating this debate.
At a recent session of the Public Accounts Committee, of which I am a member, we heard how the BBC delivered the efficiency savings requested under the last licence settlement but maintained its high standards. That must be acknowledged. In 2004, 64% of the public said that the BBC
“maintains high standards of quality”.
Today, the figure is 78%. At the moment, 80% of people are happy that the BBC exists, compared with just 72% in 2004. The key factor in achieving those savings was new technology. We have to be concerned about how future savings will be made, given that the savings in some sectors may already have been maximised and further staffing cuts of 10% are planned. Quality and a broad range of programming across the UK must be maintained.
I give special mention to the BBC World Service, which has done an excellent job over the past year in covering the phenomenal events in the middle east and north Africa. I look forward to the further development of world television.
The public rightly value programmes such as “Frozen Planet”, which other colleagues have mentioned, that are visually stunning as well as informative. People also value the BBC as an effective consumer champion in the UK and in Wales. BBC Cymru Wales is covering a story about car parking management in my constituency, following a high number of customer complaints. The car park operator has complained to me that the BBC’s filming of the car park “created a general disturbance”, and he has lambasted its “grossly unethical mafia-style actions”. That surprised me because I think that the BBC is doing an excellent job in reporting that important local story. The BBC is not afraid to ruffle feathers or to pursue consumer rights. That is another reason why it has massive public respect.
Finally, I thank the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to this debate. It is important that we recognise the huge value of what is the world’s best broadcaster.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Nick Smith.
My hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), and for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) put forward a compelling case for the BBC to think again about local radio. Surely the BBC will think again given the passion and the forensic arguments of hon. Members from all parts of the House.
I thank my hon. Friend Austin Mitchell for moving the motion and the members of the Backbench Business Committee for choosing BBC cuts, particularly in local radio, as the subject of today’s debate. It has been an excellent debate.
The importance of the BBC to Britain today is hard to overstate. The BBC has unparalleled breadth, depth, reach and appeal. It is, along with the NHS, one of the things about Britain that is most trusted and valued. It is a source of national pride for its quality and international impact. Whether through sport, drama or just Saturday night family viewing, the BBC is an integral part of life in this country. We all think that we bring up our children, but actually we do it in partnership with the BBC and CBeebies. The BBC is valued worldwide. We could have had a whole debate on just the BBC’s children’s programmes, the World Service, BBC news, the BBC’s sports coverage, or the importance of the Proms and the great BBC orchestras to music in this country.
I want to take this opportunity to address some points to the Secretary of State about his responsibility for the BBC. His responsibility is to ensure that the BBC remains strong and independent. If he wants a strong BBC, he will sometimes have to stand up for it, as we did, against the commercial sector. Of course it is important that we have a dynamic commercial broadcasting sector, but it was good that when we were in government the BBC got more channels on radio and TV, developed major online services and expanded into digital.
Not surprisingly, that attracted opposition from the commercial sector, and we withstood the pressure. I hope that the Secretary of State will stand up for the BBC’s strength, independence and future development, and resist unwarranted pressure from the commercial sector. When and if he does that, he will have our full backing.
When it comes to fighting the BBC’s corner, is it not bizarre, as Mr Foster made clear, that the BBC has to pay Sky to carry its channels rather than the other way round? Why is it that when someone watches “Frozen Planet”, a BBC production, on Sky, the BBC has to pay Sky? In the next five years, the BBC will pay £50 million in satellite access fees, more than all the costs that the BBC is planning to take away from local radio and BBC Four combined. Surely that cannot be right.
Absolutely. The right hon. Gentleman makes a very important point, which the Government could act on.
Perhaps it should have been, but we are talking about the situation now and in future, especially in light of what has happened in the licence fee settlement, with which I shall deal in a few moments.
As well as standing up for the BBC against commercial pressure, the Secretary of State will need to stand up for it against some on his own side. Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry and Ofcom are now examining media plurality in the wake of the Murdoch scandal. The dominance of the Murdoch empire, which was so much the root of the wrongdoing that is now being exposed, would have been even more dangerous without the BBC.
I do not think we will see James Murdoch repeat his attacks on the BBC any time soon, but some who support the anti-BBC stance that Murdoch set out in his 2009 Edinburgh lecture will see the Leveson proceedings and the Ofcom review as an opportunity to re-launch their attacks, as my hon. Friend John McDonnell said. Those voices have kept away from the debate today, but we know that the view still lurks among some in the Secretary of State’s party and on his Back Benches. If he wants a strong BBC, he will need to stand up to some on his own side strongly and publicly. When he does that, again, he will have our strong support.
The Secretary of State needs to stand up for the independence of the BBC. At the heart of its independence is the licence fee, and that is why so much concern has been expressed in the House again today about how the deal on the licence fee was done last October. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby talked about it as “Three Days in October—When Jeremy Terrorised Mark”. Actually, there was a prequel to that film: “Three Days in October—When George Terrorised
Jeremy”. The Secretary of State, appearing to have failed to fight his Department’s corner with the Treasury and to have accepted cuts that were too deep, then imposed major new financial responsibilities on the BBC in a rushed deal behind closed doors, to be paid for from licence fee funds. One was the cost of the World Service.
Will the right hon. and learned Lady explain why, if George terrorised Jeremy, the settlement for the BBC required it to make 16% efficiency savings compared with 19% cuts across the whole of the rest of Government?
The Secretary of State could be saying that, in the context of deficit reduction, which the Opposition believe is happening too far and too fast, the settlement could have been even worse for his Department. I do not like to play Tory Cabinet Ministers off one against the other, but the Secretary of State for International Development secured an increase for his Department. The point is that what is happening in the BBC derives from the deal that was done in October.
Of course, like all organisations, the BBC should be efficient, but the agreement on the licence fee should be a settlement between the British public and the BBC; it should not be, or be seen to be, an opportunity for Government intervention in the BBC. That is why there should always be an open process, based on evidence and involving consultation, particularly with the public, who pay the licence fee and receive the service. But that is not what happened. The licence fee stands till 2017, which is after the next election, but I am asking the Secretary of State to acknowledge today that the way in which that was done was wrong, and that to protect the BBC’s independence it should not happen like that again in future.
If the right hon. and learned Lady is so against the licence fee settlement, will she confirm that it is the Labour party’s policy to reopen it, and that she is against the six-year freeze in the licence fee, which has been so welcomed by hard-working families up and down the country?
The Secretary of State did not listen to what I said. I said that to protect the independence of the licence fee and of the BBC, the licence fee deliberation should be done with great care, with consultation with the public at its heart, and that it should be based on evidence and be open and transparent. Actually, it is a threat to the independence of the BBC to have the Secretary of State locked in a room with the director-general and to have an imposed settlement. I have highlighted the question of independence. I like to think well of people, so I ask the Secretary of State to say that he will support a strong, independent BBC. He needs to show understanding of the concern about how the licence fee was imposed and I hope he will do so.
With the frozen licence fee, new financial responsibilities and the increase in inflation—the forecast is that it will be up from 1.6% to 4.5%—the BBC is having to cut back by at least 16%. The BBC faces invidious choices and hard decisions, which cannot but affect services, jobs and all the sectors for which the BBC is the creative heart.
The cuts to local radio and regional TV have prompted particular concern. I echo hon. Members on both sides of the House who have said that BBC local radio gives a sense of place in what are sometimes fragmented communities—it is about local identity, because it reports local sports and events as well as local news. Local and regional TV offers a ladder of opportunity into the national media and the outcry against the cuts in local radio is heartfelt and genuine.
I should like to add my view of the quality of local radio and to mention Ed Doolan of BBC West Midlands—he is not from my region and I am not trying to get on his programme; he is retired—who spoke out for the whole of the west midlands and was as high a quality of broadcaster as can be found anywhere in the world.
I share the right hon. and learned Lady’s view about the quality of radio broadcasting in the west midlands—BBC Hereford and Worcester is a classic example. Does she agree that the Government’s plans to introduce more local television to invigorate local markets are extremely welcome?
“The BBC’s centre of gravity is shifting. The regions of the UK and great cities such as Birmingham are central to our vision of a new BBC”.
So much for the vision of 2004; clearly it is no longer with us in 2011.
Let us hope that Mr Thompson is reminded of that spirit and that he listens to the words of my hon. Friend and hon. Members on both sides of the House.
The BBC Trust should respond to the motion and review its proposals. I know that the BBC’s room for manoeuvre is tight, but like other hon. Members, I urge it to think again. It should also think again and put right, at no extra cost, the men-only shortlist for BBC sports personality of the year. Is the BBC really saying that there are no sportswomen, or that sportswomen do not have any personality? Is it any surprise that it has come about given that the panel of people who draw up the shortlist includes representatives from the magazines Nuts and Zoo but not, unsurprisingly, from Grazia and Marie Claire? This is clearly a matter that the BBC needs to think about again.
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Lady for her generosity in giving way. I support everything that she says about the BBC sports personality of the year. As a sportswoman and someone who coaches girls on a regular basis, I think that it is important that the BBC looks at its overall coverage of women sports. Rather than imposing positive discrimination so that women get on to the sports list, we should raise the profile of women’s sports so that they can be shortlisted on the basis of merit.
I am arguing not for positive discrimination but that there should not be discrimination against sportswomen. Women will not be fobbed off by the BBC telling them that it will sort out the process for next year; the BBC needs to sort it out for this year.
For as long as we keep talented top athletes such as Sheffield’s Jess Ennis off the shortlist, we are sending out the wrong message to women who want to compete and engage in sport.
Absolutely. The BBC can and should sort this out. The process for the awards is not written on tablets of stone. There is time to sort this out. The BBC should listen to what is being said by hon. Members and by people all around the country and sort the matter out.
Finally, may I raise an issue that was mentioned by my hon. Friend Karl Turner? Will the Secretary of State join me in condemning the really outrageous remarks of BBC presenter Jeremy Clarkson yesterday on live TV? He said that striking public sector employees should be “executed” in front of their families. The BBC has apologised for those remarks, but I hope that the Secretary of State agrees that Mr Clarkson should do the same.
I congratulate Austin Mitchell on securing this debate, which follows a well-informed and informative debate in Westminster Hall. I recognise that hon. Members have been speaking for their constituents and for many people the length and breadth of the country when they talk about their commitment to BBC local radio. Just under 10 million people listen to the BBC’s national and local services, in total consuming around 90 million hours of listening every week. That is a third of the 30 million adults who listen to local radio every week, including, as Bill Esterson said—I do not think that he is in his place at the moment—a number of people who are disabled, older and from disadvantaged sections of society. We have heard of numerous examples across the country of where BBC local radio has filled a gap that would not have been filled by anything else. In line with what other hon. Members have said, I need to mention the excellent work done by BBC Surrey, which I visited recently, including the excellent Nick Wallis breakfast show.
Before discussing the specific proposals the BBC has made, I want to place this debate in the context of two broader issues that have direct relevance to the issues at stake. The first is the Government’s broader policy on local media and the second is the BBC licence fee settlement, which I negotiated last October.
Let me start with the broader policy towards local media. I am a localist. I have always believed that too much power is concentrated at the centre of our country and we should trust local communities with much greater power to control their own destiny. Strong local media are a vital part of that vision. However, local media in this country are not in a healthy state. Our newspaper industry is battling to reinvent itself in the face of massive technological change. Furthermore, our independent local radio stations have struggled to be profitable and started to consolidate under national brands, which can make them appear less, not more, local.
Almost uniquely among developed countries, we have virtually no local television. I want to put that right. People have characterised our local media policy as simply about local television, but that is a misrepresentation. I want to use the arrival of local television next year, when we will issue 20 cities with the first local television licences, to transform our entire local media landscape to help operators to develop new business models and, most importantly, to learn to respond innovatively to the local communities that they serve in a transformed technological environment.
The objective is to increase plurality—a word that we have heard a lot of this year—at a local level in a way that is consistent with the approach laid out by my hon. Friend Alun Cairns. The relaxation of local media ownership rules is the first step, and next year’s licences will be the second step. The arrival of superfast broadband to 90% of the country by 2015—another of my departmental responsibilities—will mean that by then nearly everyone will be able to access local television over the internet. In short, as the BBC responds to the concerns raised today, which I hope that it will, the Government are doing their best to address the longer-term structural deficiencies in the local media sector.
Hon. Members have mentioned last year’s licence fee settlement. I strongly believe that the settlement is fair to the BBC and a good deal for licence fee payers. It is the first time that the licence fee has been frozen for six years, and at a time when nearly all other household bills are going through the roof, this will help struggling families and remind people that the BBC is doing its bit, too, to offer the public better value for money.
Overall, the agreement requires the BBC to make efficiency savings of 16%, which, as I said, is less than the 19% across the rest of government. I put it to the House that 16% efficiency savings over six years is not unreasonable: they are considerably lower than in many other parts of the public sector and far below those that many private sector companies have to make over much shorter time scales. The director-general of the BBC himself said:
“Anyone who believes that the BBC could have achieved a licence fee settlement at any stage and under any government, which would have called for lower efficiency targets than other public bodies were facing, is deluding themselves.”
Both he and the new chairman of the BBC Trust recognise the fairness of the settlement in challenging times.
I say to Ms Harman that the Labour party also has responsibilities, and it cannot complain about the cuts without also saying whether it would reopen the licence fee settlement and end the six-year freeze. To engage in a debate about cuts and not say what it would do is irresponsible politics and undermines the excellent speeches made by Labour Back Benchers today.
The House will understand that, as mentioned, having negotiated an overall efficiency saving, it is not for the Government to specify how the BBC
Trust spends the money. Operational and editorial independence is at the heart of the high esteem in which the BBC is held by the public and vital to the role that it plays in our democracy. Because of its fundamental importance, that independence is enshrined in its charter and agreement.
The hon. Member for Great Grimsby talked about the BBC’s culture of “can-do submission” and its saying to me, “Yes, sir, no, sir, three bags full, sir.” If only that were the case. He will know that I am probably the only Member to have been called a four-letter word that rhymes with his surname by a presenter on the “Today” programme. Oscar Wilde said:
“The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about”.
The presenter certainly cured that problem for me.
If it is wrong for the Government to compromise BBC independence, however, it is equally wrong for the BBC not to listen to, and take heed of, the views expressed by hon. Members today. I hope that the BBC will listen to the passion with which Members have spoken. I hope that it will note the articulacy with which, for example, my hon. Friend Daniel Kawczynski talked about local decision making at Radio Shropshire. My hon. Friend Martin Vickers talked about Radio Humberside. My hon. Friend Tracey Crouch talked about Radio Kent, which has the longest listening hours in the country. Yvonne Fovargue—I do not think she is here—talked about the importance of rugby league and local sports coverage. Paul Blomfield talked about Radio Sheffield and its reach to ethnic minorities, as well as its sports coverage. My hon. Friends the Members for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) and for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) talked about the important role that the BBC plays for the Welsh language. Mr Wright talked about the importance of local identity, as well as the match reporting of Ali Brownlew.
Angela Smith talked about the BBC’s brilliant natural history coverage—I think it was the first time that “criminal penguins” had been mentioned in this House. She also made an important point about the importance of the local as well as the regional, which is very much at the heart of the local TV agenda. Nick Smith talked about the fact that the BBC is not afraid to rattle feathers. In terms of local TV coverage, one of the things we need to do—[ Interruption. ] I think the phrase I was looking for was probably “rattle cages”. We want to increase, not decrease, the scrutiny of local democracy and local politics, which lies at the heart of many of the concerns that hon. Members have raised today. Luciana Berger talked about the pitfalls of local radio sharing. I hope that the BBC will think about those lessons. I had not heard that “Newsnight Scotland” was called “Newsnicht Scotland”, but what Pete Wishart said about the dangers in the transition of BBC 2 to HD is something that the BBC would do well to listen to, because I know how important that programme is.
I hope that hon. Members will be reassured by some of the comments that BBC management have made in response to this whole debate and the points raised. The director general said to the Public Accounts Committee that local radio was an “incredibly precious service” and that the BBC did not want to preside over its decline. Lord Patten, the new chairman of the BBC Trust, described local radio as the glue that holds local communities together and a
“more trusted way of getting information than anything else”.
I know that Lord Patten has been visiting BBC local radio stations recently to learn more about them and their role. I am sure that he will see that radio is a medium that often generates a passionate response, especially from listeners. He will see that local radio is a unique source of local information, debate and culture. He will see that it serves a crucial function in building relationships with and supporting local communities. As such, local radio is rightly valued and treasured by Members of this House, speaking up for their constituents.
With the leave of the House, I would like briefly to reply to what has been an interesting debate. We have heard praise from all parts of the House for the BBC and its role as a beacon of excellence in news, television and all the other services it provides. Some of the praise from Government Members was praise with faint damns and some of them suggested various cuts that could be made that were different from those proposed in the BBC’s agenda. In particular, we could consider cuts to Clarkson’s salary, which brings to mind an interesting proposal for a programme: “Cutting Clarkson: Women Viewers Say How”, which I can recommend for BBC 2.
It is interesting that nobody defended or justified the full scale of the cuts or the full scale of the impositions on the licence fee. The Minister presented himself in a more amiable light today than in those three days in October, when he must have presented himself as The Beast From 10,000 MHz, such was the terror that he produced in the BBC. However, he made what I thought were three mistakes in his presentation. I agree with him about the desire to stimulate and develop local television, but that should not be done at the cost of cutting BBC local radio, as the current proposals do. I agree that he has defended the BBC against 19% cuts, which was the average among Departments. However, if he works it out, adding the 16% cuts that he has imposed on BBC to the 3% efficiency savings that were already in train under the 2008 agreement—and which will continue until 2013—makes 19%. That is in addition to the further 4% cuts that the BBC is imposing to generate money for programmes. This is a fairly elementary mistake.
It is wrong to say that the Government proposed the cuts and that the BBC cannot interfere in how those cuts are carried out. It has to stand itself in reserve. If the cuts become damaging to the BBC and its reputation for quality, it will need a supplementary licence fee increase to save it from disaster. That is the reserve power that was asked for.
For the rest, what has emerged from the debate is stunningly clear and loud. We are saying to the BBC that local radio should not be cut in the proposed fashion, that regional television should not be cut in the proposed fashion and, most loudly and clearly of all, that the BBC should go away and think again about the scale and timing of these cuts.
Question put and agreed to .
That this House calls upon the BBC to reconsider the scale and timing of its proposed cuts so as better to safeguard BBC local radio, regional television news and programmes, the morale and enthusiasm of its staff, and the quality of BBC programmes generally, all of which have made the BBC the most respected public service broadcaster in the world.