[Relevant documents: First Report from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Session 2015-16, BBC Charter Review, HC 398; Third Report from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Session 2016-17, BBC White Paper and other issues, HC 150; Oral evidence taken before the Defence Committee, the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee on
I beg to move,
That this House
approves the draft Agreement (Cm 9332), between the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and the British Broadcasting Corporation, which was laid before this House on
I start with an apology. Although I am delighted to be here for the debate, I will have to leave at some point this afternoon—I hope that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the House will forgive me—because we have, as Members will know, a magnificent celebration of our Olympic and Paralympic athletes. It was an enormous pleasure to be in Manchester with them yesterday, and I look forward to seeing them again today.
The BBC is the best broadcaster in the world, and it is widely recognised as such throughout the world. Despite what some people would have the world believe, the Government know that the BBC is one of our greatest institutions and must be nurtured and cherished. The fact that we received more than 190,000 submissions to our consultation shows how deeply people care about the BBC. It is, therefore, quite right that the changes we are making to the BBC will strengthen it, secure its funding, protect it, decouple the charter from the electoral cycle and ensure that the BBC not only survives but thrives.
The Secretary of State has talked about providing appropriate funding for the BBC to make sure that it is funded well. At the same time, the Government have inappropriately imposed on the BBC the costs of free licences for the over-75s and of overseas monitoring for the security services and the Foreign Office. What does she have to say to that?
I have also enjoyed sparring with the hon. Gentleman across the Dispatch Box. I will come on to the details of the funding later, but I believe that this funding settlement is a strong one that puts the BBC on a sustainable footing with an inflationary increase in the licence fee.
The BBC has agreed to this through negotiations and discussions, and I am confident that the funding settlement puts the BBC on a sustainable long-term footing.
The funding settlement is to pay for the very best BBC, which we all want to see. I am absolutely confident that this funding settlement will provide that.
No, I will make some progress, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me. I will come back to funding shortly, but I want to put on record the fact that the draft charter contains a few small, technical omissions and errors. We will publish shortly a revised charter that includes all those points, on which I know some hon. and right hon. Members have picked up.
The BBC royal charter and agreement will support a BBC that makes and broadcasts world-class content; that provides impartial, high-quality news; that is independent, transparent, and accountable; and that works with, rather than against, the rest of the United Kingdom creative sector. The BBC director-general, Lord Hall, hailed the draft charter as
“the right outcome for the BBC and its role as a creative power for Britain”.
The new royal charter will make the BBC stronger in a number of ways. It will increase the BBC’s independence, improve its regulation, make it more transparent and accountable to licence fee payers, and make it better reflect the whole United Kingdom. First of all, the BBC will become more independent.
The Secretary of State has just said that the new royal charter will maintain the BBC’s independence, but I draw her attention to paragraph 4 of the draft agreement that she laid before the House last month, which states:
“By entering into this Agreement, the BBC has…assumed obligations which restrict, to some extent, its future freedom of action.”
How can that possibly be consistent with what she has just said about its independence?
When the hon. Lady looks at the charter as a whole, she will see that the BBC will become more independent. It is very easy to take one line from an agreement and try to demonstrate the opposite. As a whole, the charter will make the BBC more independent.
No, I will make some progress.
A majority—nine out of 14—of the members of the new unitary board will be appointed by the BBC. That contrasts with past appointments by Governments of every member of the BBC governing board. The new director-general will be editor-in-chief and have final responsibility for individual decisions on the BBC’s editorial matters and creative output.
I understand that point, but I think this structure will give the BBC more independence. The fact that the majority of directors will be appointed by the BBC makes it clear that the Government want the BBC to be independent, to be strong and to succeed.
On that point, does my right hon. Friend accept that the director-general remains the editor-in-chief and that the role of the unitary board is only to scrutinise, post-broadcast, decisions the director-general has made?
My hon. Friend exactly sums up the position.
The longer—11-year—royal charter will separate charter renewal from the electoral cycle, which has been widely welcomed. I reiterate that the mid-term review after six years will be a health check, not another charter review in all but name. It is surely eminently sensible to check how effectively new arrangements are working before 11 years have gone by. Moreover, article 57 of the charter states:
“The review must not consider…the mission of the BBC;…the Public Purposes of the BBC;
or…the licence fee funding model of the BBC for the period of this Charter.”
Does the Secretary of State agree that there will be a further huge change in viewing habits from traditional television to online and on-demand viewing over the 11-year charter renewal period? Will she consider decriminalising non-payment of the TV licence for viewing the iPlayer and will she in effect implement decriminalising non-payment of the TV licence over the charter renewal period, which would be widely supported and welcomed?
I know my hon. Friend has campaigned strongly on this issue, and I understand the point he makes.
I will go through some further points about the new charter. The BBC will be regulated more effectively under it. The charter and agreement set out Ofcom’s new role as the BBC’s independent regulator. Ofcom will monitor and review how well the BBC meets its mission and public purposes, regulate editorial standards, hold the BBC to account on market impacts and public value, and consider relevant complaints from viewers, listeners and other stakeholders where complainants are not satisfied with resolution by the BBC.
Ofcom has been asked about that point, and it has set out that it has the capabilities and the competence to do this work. The charter is the result of extensive negotiations between the BBC, Ofcom and others, and I am confident that Ofcom has the resources to be able to fulfil its obligations.
It is fundamentally important that the BBC should be impartial. Colleagues have been keen to impress that point on me in the run-up to and following the EU referendum. Although it is not for the Government to arbitrate on such matters, I will make sure that Ofcom never forgets what a vital duty it has in this regard. These are big new responsibilities for Ofcom, and it is rightly going to consult with the industry on its new operating framework for the BBC next year.
It will also be Ofcom’s job to set regulatory requirements for the BBC to be distinctive. Schedule 2 to the agreement makes it clear that the BBC’s output and services as a whole need to be distinctive, so concerns that this is a way for the Government to interfere with specific programmes are totally unfounded. The provisions in the charter that place new duties on the BBC to consider its impact on the market are not about reducing the BBC’s role per se.
I would be very interested to know the right hon. Lady’s personal perspective on what “distinctive” means. Does it mean distinct from other channels or from international broadcasters? Will she clarify what it means in this context?
I think “distinctive” means both those things. It means that the BBC is a unique and distinctive broadcaster that offers a range of outputs across television and radio, appeals to a wide variety of the population and offers programming that simply would not be delivered in a commercial context.
One of the distinctive areas and advantages of the BBC is its ability to take forward policy initiatives such as commitments to minority language broadcasting. Does the Secretary of State understand the concern felt among those in the excellent operation at BBC Alba that the framework agreement as currently drafted is not entirely to their advantage? It needs to be looked again, particularly with regard to the fact that the funding source should continue to come from the BBC UK pot as part of a commitment to minority languages across the whole of the UK.
BBC Alba is a wholly owned subsidiary of the BBC. The charter and the framework set out very clearly the requirements on BBC Alba. I would be very happy to meet representatives of BBC Alba if they feel that something has not been considered, although, from our previous conversations, I think such points have been addressed.
Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the most distinctive forms of BBC output and the way in which it probably comes closest to meeting its public service requirements is BBC local radio? It provides the very focused and, I would argue, often unique output that is very valuable to many communities up and down the United Kingdom.
I agree with my hon. Friend that BBC local radio is very important for all our local areas. I will give BBC Radio Stoke a plug, because I know it would be disappointed if I did not do so. [Interruption.] Ruth Smeeth seems to agree with that point. I am sure we all feel the same about our local radio. The point of the charter and the framework is to provide such a regional focus and to ensure it is maintained.
I have taken several interventions, and I am afraid I want to make some progress.
We are making the BBC more transparent and accountable, as is only right for an institution that receives so much public money and means so much to the public. The salaries of individuals who earn £150,000 and above will be made public. There will also be a full, fair and open competition for the post of chair of the new BBC Board. The National Audit Office will become the BBC’s financial auditor, and it will be able to conduct value-for-money studies of the BBC’s commercial subsidiaries. The NAO is held in very high regard, and it has extensive experience of scrutinising commercial and specialised organisations such as Network Rail and the security services.
Finally, the Government have listened carefully to those who said that the BBC must better reflect and represent each of the home nations. They are right. The charter provides for a strengthened public purpose, emphasising the fact that the BBC has a central role in the creative economy across the UK’s nations and regions. Appointments to the unitary board of members for the nations will need the agreement of the devolved Minister or, for the England member, the Secretary of State. The charter obliges the BBC to appear before Committees and to lay its annual reports and accounts in the devolved legislatures.
The Secretary of State commends BBC Radio Stoke, and I know that local radio is hugely important. Is it not unfortunate, therefore, that we do not have BBC local radio in Wales? One station alone represents the whole of Wales—BBC Radio Wales, along with Radio Cymru. Is it not time that we had local radio services in Wales in the way we have them in England?
Clearly that is a matter for the BBC. I sometimes pick up BBC Radio Wales in my constituency in Staffordshire—it seems to have a wide and long reach and is clearly reaching areas outside its normal remit.
The BBC must fully reflect the diverse nature of the UK. For the first time, diversity is enshrined in the charter’s public purposes and requirements on minority language provision are strengthened. The charter will be considered by the Privy Council before the Government seek Royal Assent.
We had an excellent debate in the other place last week and I am pleased to have another opportunity to debate the world’s finest broadcaster in this Chamber. Our changes will secure the future of the BBC, strengthen it, give it an unprecedented degree of independence and make it more transparent, accountable and representative. This Government believe in the BBC.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I particularly draw Members’ attention to the fact that I have only recently stood down as vice-chair of the all-party group on the BBC.
May I say how much we are looking forward to working with the new Secretary of State and her team? She was generous and engaged in constructive dialogue when she was a Home Office Minister, and I hope that we can continue that relationship in our new posts. I also wish to thank my predecessors in this role, my hon. Friends the Members for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins), who has shown that he has not lost his tenacity or his energy in this policy area, and for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), who offered such robust scrutiny of the White Paper when it was discussed earlier in the year.
The Labour party welcomes the fact that the charter provides the BBC with the funding and security it needs as it prepares to enter its second century of broadcasting. The BBC embodies those enduring British values of hard work, creativity, innovation and co-operation. It helps to ensure that Britain’s voice is heard around the world, and it has informed and entertained countless millions of listeners, viewers and web users. It did so once again over the summer with its truly exceptional coverage of the Olympics in Rio, and I know that the whole House will agree that we should acknowledge that on the day we celebrate the achievements of our athletes by throwing a fantastic party in Trafalgar Square later.
While we welcome the charter, we have some misgivings, as the Secretary of State has seen, about the responsibilities that the BBC has been obliged to accept. In particular, we are extremely concerned about the Government’s decision to force the BBC to meet the cost of providing free TV licences to the over-75s. That was done without meaningful public consultation and little parliamentary debate, and it was part of a deal that was made behind closed doors.
The imposition of the cost of licences for over-75s was carried out at the same time as the charter was being negotiated. Does that not imply that a degree of duress was involved in making the BBC accept that decision?
It is certainly not the most ideal of circumstances to face when negotiating for survival. We do not think that there was a meaningful public consultation and we had hoped that those days were behind us. We feel strongly that that situation cannot be allowed to happen again. This was the second time that the Government had approached their deliberations with the BBC by placing a gun to its head. In 2010, the coalition Government forced the BBC to take on the cost of paying for the World Service. The Government approached the negotiations in 2010 and 2015 with the subtlety of a ram raider approaching a jewellery shop. Their approach was described as a “smash and grab raid”.
We expect the Secretary of State to reassure us that the next licence fee settlement will be agreed in a transparent manner and according to a clear timetable. It must be subject to parliamentary scrutiny and put out to public consultation, so that whoever is in power cannot railroad a settlement through again. Please will the Secretary of State give a guarantee to the House that such a system will be put in place? We will work with her to achieve that.
I am sure that some people believe that asking the BBC to pay £700 million a year for free licences was clever politics, but I think it was political irresponsibility, verging on negligence. The BBC is not an arm of the Government. It should not be asked to meet the cost of Government policies and it should not be asked to implement changes to the Government’s social security policy.
It is worth putting on record that the BBC licence fee has been frozen for the last six years. The Government have agreed to increase the licence fee in line with inflation, which will result in additional income for the BBC of £18 billion in the period up to 2021. That is more than enough compensation for the money the hon. Gentleman is talking about. The issue of licences for over-75s was dealt with outside the charter arrangements. This is a fair settlement that gives the BBC good funding and the licence fee payer good value for money.
It is certainly a settlement. The BBC has accepted it as a settlement, and that is why we will not oppose the motion, but it is not unreasonable for us to press the Secretary of State on why an instrument of social security policy is being passed to the BBC. We are considering carefully whether we can challenge the measure in the Digital Economy Public Bill Committee, because the extra cost imposed on the BBC is the equivalent of a 20% budget cut. I know the deal has been struck and different income streams have been negotiated within it, but the manner in which it has been done is distinctly unfair. The Government are passing responsibility for social security cuts that they should take on to a British institution.
Yes. I should point out that I have a bad ear infection and can hardly hear a thing today, so hon. Members will have to shout if they want my attention.
I am sorry to shout so dramatically, but I took on board what the hon. Gentleman said—I listen to every word he says—about his ear infection and I wanted to grab his attention. May I point out that the money from the BBC television licence fee that was used for broadband was actually the surplus left over from Labour’s highly successful digital switchover programme? That programme was so successful that it underspent its budget, and we used the surplus to pursue our own extremely successful broadband programme.
I am being slightly diverted from the motion. I have only been in this role for 10 days, so I may not have my facts entirely right, but I think that the £630 million that my hon. Friend Ian C. Lucas described has also been underspent to the tune of £60 million. It would be very useful if the Government could give that money back to the BBC so that it could be put into diverse broadcasting such as children’s broadcasting, in which the right hon. Gentleman and I both have an interest.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that in an age when all other public bodies are being asked to make efficiency savings, it is reasonable for the BBC to be asked to share some of the burden, especially given the fact that the BBC overspends on a lot of programme making? For example, it took twice the number of people to the Olympics than other broadcasters took? Salaries are still going up, the top echelons have not been reduced and huge pension settlements are still being given to those who leave the BBC.
I hope that I have not given the hon. Gentleman the impression that I do not think viewers need value for money—they certainly do. The transparency measures agreed by both sides of the House have helped to ensure that the value-for-money case is made internally within the BBC.
Hon. Members are eliding public spending, which is paid for by taxation, and licence fee spending, which might be seen as a relatively regressive form of taxation, but is not public funding in the same sense.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point.
We will always make the case for a strong, independent and well-funded BBC. That was what we did in government and it is what we intend to do in opposition. I hope that we can move on from the days when a small group of campaigners routinely questioned whether the BBC should exist at all. For a handful of people, the licence fee that has funded the BBC for nearly a century is an aberration. They believe that the only reliable, durable and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit. Perhaps they believe that 40p a day is an outrageous price to pay for the BBC’s startling array of television and radio news coverage, current affairs programmes, natural history, drama, comedy and children’s programmes. Perhaps they would rather see the BBC smaller and a little duller. I do not believe that and the British public do not believe it either. That was why there were 192,000 responses to the Government’s consultation on the future of the BBC, and why the overwhelming majority were favourable and supportive.
I pay tribute to the campaigners whose tireless work helped to deliver a BBC charter that is likely to secure its future: the Great BBC campaign, founded by Lord Waheed-Alli and Charlie Parsons; the Save our BBC campaign; the 38 Degrees petition to protect our BBC, which now has over 390,000 signatures; and all the creative industry trade unions, including the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union, Equity, the Musicians’ Union, the National Union of Journalists and the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain. All came together in a coalition to defend the BBC. They raised awareness, generated support and helped to deliver those 192,000 responses to the Government’s consultation. On both sides of the House, we are indebted to them all.
I agree completely that there was some very effective campaigning, but will the hon. Gentleman accept that there was also a lot of unnecessary scaremongering? For example, an accusation was sent to Government Members’ mailboxes about the wholesale destruction of the BBC by the Tories. That was never the intent and never the case, and some people need to apologise.
I am afraid that I am not quite sure of the specific allegation of scaremongering, but the hon. Gentleman has made his point and it is on the record.
We welcome the royal charter and the security it gives the BBC. In particular, I welcome the Government’s U-turn, as the consultation on the future of the BBC that they published in July 2015 was very different in tone and intention to the proposals before us now. We welcome the fact that the BBC’s funding settlement will now be decided every 11 years; it is particularly helpful to remove it from the five-year election cycle.
We welcome the settlement, but we know that an institution the size of the BBC can never be perfect. We believe the BBC has a responsibility to look and sound like Britain, both on screen and off. It should do far more to identify, employ and promote talent from every background and every walk of life. That means recruiting far more people from our black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. It means more women of every age in senior roles off screen and in leading roles on screen. It also means employing people from every social background.
Thinking about the pupils of Ashfield, I would like to make a practical suggestion. The BBC should go into schools in constituencies such as mine and tell pupils that work experience is open to them. Their parents pay the licence fee, so they should have the opportunity to work there.
That is a fantastic idea. Perhaps we can build up a case to allow the BBC to extend its reach into schools in areas like my hon. Friend’s constituency.
That is a very insightful point about something that we can work together to monitor.
I was talking about employing people from every social background. The BBC has a duty to reflect the nation it serves. That means informing and entertaining licence fee payers, as is set out in the charter, but the BBC must also do more to encourage and support British talent regardless of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability or social background. It is well placed to do that because, almost uniquely, it has a strong and visible presence across the country. There are BBC studios in Birmingham, Bristol and Belfast. The BBC has offices in Leeds, Nottingham, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Cardiff and many more places too numerous to list. It has a duty to reach out to the communities on its doorstep.
The BBC has significantly expanded its apprenticeship programme. I commend director-general Tony Hall for that but, as my hon. Friend Gloria De Piero points out, there is far more we can do. According to research carried out in 2015 by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, over nine in 10 jobs in the creative economy are done by people in more advantaged socio-economic groups, compared with 66% of jobs in the wider economy. That has to change.
Ministers are nodding in support of that, so I hope that they can reassure me that the new and explicit commitment to diversity will also cover social class. I grew up in an era when working class actors such as Michael Caine, Glenda Jackson and Julie Walters were giants of popular culture.
I am; I am feeling it, anyway.
I have nothing against Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne—I admire their talent hugely and they are great ambassadors for our country—but we need more people like Julie Walters, Christopher Ecclestone and Paul McGann. And it should not fall to Lenny Henry and Idris Elba to be the face of the BBC’s diversity programme.
This is an appropriate point in the debate to underline the cross-party support for this direction of travel. The BBC knows that it has a lot more work to do. As the hon. Gentleman says, diversity is explicit in the charter, and that means diversity in all its forms: yes, protected characteristics such as ethnic background, gender and sexual orientation, but also social background—wherever people come from and from whatever walk of life.
I welcome the Minister’s reassurance about that. We will work constructively with the Government to make sure there is a framework so that the BBC can actually achieve its targets. As Andrew Rajan wrote only last week:
“there have been decades of lip-service being paid in praise of diversity by the various gatekeepers of finance and programming, but nothing has changed at all”.
The BBC has published its own national target, which commits it to hiring 15% of staff from black, Asian and minority ethnic groups by 2020, but I am afraid it has a poor record on this. In its evidence to the Puttnam inquiry, the Campaign for Broadcasting Equality said that despite the BBC’s many diversity initiatives and programmes, it has consistently failed to meet its own targets. This cannot continue, so I welcome the Minister’s commitment to making sure that that does not happen.
The people we see on screen, the people who create what we see on our screens and the people who lead television must look more like the people we see on our streets. That means seeking out talent, on screen and off, from the black and minority ethnic communities. It means ensuring that roles do not mysteriously disappear for older women and it means creating roles that do not automatically exclude candidates with disabilities or mental health issues. The charter’s new commitment to diversity is welcome and Ofcom’s role as the BBC’s new regulator will be vital. It will help to bring about a truly diverse BBC that reflects the nation it serves. The point Mrs Grant makes is well taken. Will the Minister tell us how Ofcom will monitor and enforce its new diversity duty? Will it publish data about the number of BBC employees from minority groups? Will it monitor on-screen talent and publish information about where that is drawn from? Any detail that the Minister could provide today would be extremely helpful.
The charter introduces a host of other changes, some of which are more welcome than others. The National Audit Office already helps to ensure that the BBC delivers value for money to licence fee payers, so we have no objection in principle to extending its role so that it scrutinises the parts of the BBC that spend public money. We have some concerns, however, about the expansion of the NAO’s remit to cover parts of the BBC that are not directly funded by the licence fee, particularly BBC Worldwide. There might be a danger that allowing the NAO to access BBC Worldwide’s books could place it at a commercial disadvantage, so that risk will need to be addressed.
The charter attempts to resolve that possible problem by stating that the NAO cannot question any “creative or editorial judgements” on the grounds of value for money, but it also allows the NAO to define exactly what that phrase means. It will need to be defined more precisely in the charter in the future. Will the Minister be able to provide us with some comfort that it will not be interpreted too widely? An independent dispute resolution process needs to be established so that disagreements between the NAO and the BBC can be resolved.
We give cautious welcome to the proposal that Ofcom becomes the BBC’s regulator. I have already mentioned the critical role Ofcom will play in monitoring diversity, and it will also monitor distinctiveness and consult the industry on its new operating framework next year. Given the issues at stake, can the Minister confirm that Ofcom will also consult Parliament and the public about this matter? The BBC Trust struggled to reconcile its twin roles of the corporation’s regulator and its cheerleader. It is right that these two functions and responsibilities, which were often confusing and sometimes contradictory, are to be officially separated.
We welcome the fact that the majority of appointees to the BBC’s unitary board will now be drawn from the BBC, rather than being appointed by the Government. We note that that was not the Government’s original intention, but I commend them for performing a heel turn and pivot on that issue—Ed Balls would have been given a 10 from Len if he had managed to pull that off with such style. As Lord Foster of Bath said in the other place, the fact that the Government appoint the chair of the new BBC board and the chair of Ofcom raises questions about their independence. Does not the Secretary of State agree that one way of guaranteeing independence would be to require that every non-executive is independently appointed?
The new charter rewrites the BBC’s 90-year-old mission statement. The commitment to be “impartial and distinctive” has been added to the time-honoured duty to “inform, educate and entertain”. We need assurances from Ministers about that, because distinctiveness is poorly defined, and Ofcom has admitted that it is still working out exactly what it means. Distinctiveness is a vague notion, and there is a risk that the BBC’s commercial rivals could use it as a stick with which to beat the BBC whenever they wish.
Despite these reservations, I sense that this Secretary of State wants to create a new climate in which the future of the BBC can be discussed without political posturing. I do not think she wants to return to the days when David Cameron could describe the prospect of cuts to the nation’s favourite broadcaster as “delicious”. The new approach is welcome. As I said, I believe that the Secretary of State has the BBC’s best interests at heart. I can detect no desire on her part to use the BBC as a political football. I really hope those days are behind us. The aim of the charter settlement should be to give the BBC the space, time and resources it needs to adapt to huge technological change. That is the only way the BBC will remain relevant to a younger audience who are consuming content in myriad ways.
We will work with the Secretary of State to secure the future of the BBC. Let us hope that this is a new benign era for the Beeb. After all, when Government Ministers are loudly complaining about you in public; when Back-Bench Government MPs insist that you have an inbuilt left-wing bias; when Front-Bench Opposition MPs insist that you have an obvious right-wing bias; when the left-wing columnist, Owen Jones, says you are a threat to democracy; when the Foreign Secretary finds you infuriating; when politicians and activists of every stripe and persuasion think you are against them; when two thirds of the British public see you as a bastion of editorial excellence and journalistic integrity; and when the American public would rather get their news from you than from their own news sources, there is one thing the BBC can be sure of—it is doing things right. We should be proud of one of the nation’s greatest assets.
I welcome the publication of both the draft charter and now the agreement. This is the culmination of a process that started a year ago with the publication of the consultation paper on the future of the BBC. As both Front-Bench spokespeople have mentioned, that produced a very wide-ranging and voluminous response, ranging from the 192,000 people who responded by email or letter to a number of luminaries of the creative industries who wrote to defend the BBC against the threat that they saw, but that I believe, as my hon. Friend Nigel Huddleston pointed out, never really existed.
I just want to put on record my thanks for the amazing work that my right hon. Friend did as Secretary of State. It was a joy to come into the job and find such comprehensive and technically excellent work done on the charter, which really puts the BBC on an excellent footing. I want to thank my right hon. Friend for that.
I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend. It is gratifying, and it is a positive sign, that the charter and the agreement essentially reflect the contents of the White Paper, which was the result of a great deal of work. At the time, it was very much welcomed by the BBC as putting it on a sound footing for the future. I believe that that is the case and that the charter and the agreement are, if anything, a bit tougher on the BBC than the White Paper was. The changes made to the charter and agreement go further—in ways that I welcome. Indeed, I might have recommended myself the changes to the salaries publication regime, whereby the Government have decided that it is right to publish the salaries of not only those earning over £450,000, but over £150,000.
The issues that attracted perhaps most comment when the White Paper came out—they have featured in the debate we have had thus far—are the independence and the governance structure of the BBC. The governance structure was widely recognised by Members of all parties as having failed. The BBC Trust had virtually no defenders. When I chaired the Select Committee, we produced a robust report, saying that the trust model did not work. The Lords Communications Committee also produced a report making precisely the same point. The idea that the BBC should have a management executive and then this arm’s length body, which was part of the BBC but not in the BBC, was simply a recipe for confusion, leading to a succession of problems, including severance payments, the appointment and then departure of the director-general within a space of 54 days and huge wastes of money such as the digital media initiative, which cost the licence fee payer over £100 million.
We asked David Clementi to come up with a recommendation for a new governance structure, and he came back with the one that most people had always felt was the right solution—a strong unitary board with external governance from Ofcom. Then the debate was about the appointments made to that management board—the unitary board—and whether the Government should have a role in it.
Helen Goodman reads some sinister meaning into paragraph 4 of the agreement, where it says that the independence of the BBC’s appointments is important, but nevertheless has to take account of external factors. Let me explain that that particular paragraph is word-for-word identical to the paragraph in the agreement published in 2006, when the Labour Government were in office. It simply translates the same provision from 2006 into the new agreement. So if there was a sinister purpose, it was the creation of the hon. Lady’s party, not that of the present Government.
There was then a debate about the fact that, obviously, the unitary board was a more powerful and directly responsible body than the trust. It was recognised, I think, that it was right for the appointment of the chairman to remain a Government appointment, although my own view was that because the board was such a new creation there should be an open competition, and that was the view that the new Secretary of State and the new Prime Minister subsequently reached following the publication of a report by the Select Committee. I think that that was probably the right decision.
The Government appoint the four independent directors, each of whom will represent or speak for one of the nations of the United Kingdom, and, as has been pointed out, the BBC will appoint five non-executive directors. Even the Government’s appointments will, however, be made through the public appointments process. As I have said, they will not be in the majority. Perhaps most crucially of all, the unitary board will not have a role in editorial decision-making, although it will have a role in reaching judgments about complaints post-transmission. That crucial safeguard will ensure that those people cannot be accused of political interference.
I find it extraordinary, I must say, that all the people who suggested that the creation of the board somehow constituted a threat to the independence of the BBC—although, as was pointed out, it would have no involvement in editorial decision-making—have been strangely silent about what strikes me as a more dangerous precedent: the appointment of James Purnell as director of radio and education. When the BBC appointed James Purnell as director of strategy in 2013, just three years after he ceased to be a Labour Member of Parliament and about five years after he ceased to be Secretary of State, I questioned the director-general about the appointment in the Select Committee. I asked him whether he could think of any precedent for the assuming of a management role in the BBC by someone who was not just politically affiliated, but had been a very active party politician. He could not do so, but he did say this to the Select Committee:
“I think the key thing is—James’s job of course is not editorial”.
James Purnell has now become director of radio and education. As director of radio, he has overall responsibility for the output of a large amount of BBC content, and it is impossible to say that he has no involvement in editorial decisions. Indeed, we are told that he has been groomed as a potential candidate for the job of director-general, a position which, of course, is also that of chief editor of the BBC.
I like James Purnell. We get on well, we have robust discussions, and we agree about quite a lot. I have absolutely no doubt that James Purnell is absolutely committed to the impartiality of the BBC, just as I am; I merely suggest that if I, as a former Secretary of State, were to be invited, in a few years’ time, to take on a management role in the BBC—[Hon. Members: “I’d back you!”] I suspect that, despite the support that I might enjoy from some on my own side, it would give rise to howls of outrage, and I do not think it would be appropriate. This is not to criticise James Purnell, but his appointment does establish a very dangerous precedent, which is far more of a direct threat to independence than the appointment of the non-executive, independent directors.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a fair point. What it all goes to show is that more appointments of this kind should be made through independent processes, and that is precisely our criticism of the new board structure. The right hon. Gentleman has just given another example in which the independence comes into doubt.
The hon. Lady has made an interesting point. The Government have no involvement in the appointment of management executives in the BBC, and—this is another issue—we understand that, just as there was no competition when James Purnell was appointed director of strategy, there was no advertisement or external competition for this particular post. However, that is a matter for the BBC. It is something that the Select Committee has previously questioned quite vigorously, and although I am no longer a member of the Select Committee, my successors may well wish to take it up with the director-general in the future. I hope that they will.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that James Purnell had a career in the media before becoming a Member of Parliament—he was a special adviser at No. 10 in that area—and that there is a general view that he has done a very good job? He is a good friend of mine, but is not the real purpose of advertising to ensure that we do not just get white men who are hand-picked for such jobs? That must be the criticism, rather than, necessarily, James Purnell’s own background and the expertise that he clearly possesses.
I am not sure that the fact that James Purnell was a member of Tony Blair’s policy unit is hugely reassuring to me. As for the right hon. Gentleman’s point about the need for diversity, it has already been covered in the debate, and I absolutely sign up to it. The right hon. Gentleman has acknowledged and welcomed the fact that we have included it in the BBC’s public purposes for the first time. I think that the BBC is committed to trying to increase diversity, but, as has already been said, there is more to be done.
The appointment of James Purnell to his new role is important not just in relation to James Purnell himself, but in relation to the process. This is one of the most senior positions in the BBC, and there is no internal or external advertising of that position. There is a great deal of criticism of the way in which BBC executives are appointed and how much they are paid, and an element of transparency and competition is important in that context.
I entirely agree that that is an important issue, but I think that the issue of the political precedent is, if anything, even more important. People complained vigorously about the suggestion that the Government might appoint, as non-executive independent directors, people who might be political friends. That caused howls. This, however, is not an independent position. It is not a non-editorial position. It is a position within the management executive which involves responsibility for editorial content. Obviously, it is a much more directly responsible position, and it is therefore even more important that it should be politically independent.
She was originally appointed following a very open and widespread competition when she became chairman of the BBC Trust. Obviously that post was advertised, there were a number of candidates, and the process was subject to the full public appointments procedure. The fact that the then Prime Minister and I told the House that it was felt that she could serve during the transition following a transfer to the new position is a matter of public record. However, as I said earlier, I think that the later decision that it would be better to put the post out to open competition was the correct one.
The BBC may or may not have made a mistake in the way in which it appointed a particular individual—James Purnell, about whom the right hon. Gentleman has been talking—but it made that decision as an independent organisation. Is not the difficulty that we face, and the issue of political interference, caused by the fact that we in this place seek to control? When the right hon. Gentleman was Secretary of State, it was argued that the appointment of a majority of board members by the Government of the day was a matter of concern, because it was felt that there would be a route for political interference from this place and from the Government, rather than the BBC’s making its own mistakes—or not; as it may or may not do.
That was obviously a separate debate. I understand the concern expressed by the hon. Lady, but I do not agree with her. Even under the original suggestion, the BBC would have had a majority when the non-executive and executive board members were taken together. Moreover, as I sought to point out, the non-executive members will have been through the public appointments process. They will have had to demonstrate their competence and qualifications for the role, which most people regard as a pretty good safeguard. Of course, the BBC Trust, which the board replaces, was wholly appointed by the Government, so this is quite a big shift.
Apart from the political connotations of the appointment, does the right hon. Gentleman not find it even more bizarre that, because of either the perceived inexperience of the appointee or other internal factors, the BBC has had to create another management post to support Mr Purnell, with a salary of more than the Prime Minister’s, at a time when it says it has no money?
Again, the hon. Gentleman raises some valid points. There are a number of curiosities about this appointment. As I indicated earlier, I am sure the Select Committee will want to think about some of them when the director-general next appears before it.
I want to touch on a couple of other aspects of the agreement and charter, which, as I have said, I very much welcome. The introduction of distinctiveness as a key requirement for the BBC is important. It is right that an organisation that enjoys £4 billion of public money should not be competing with the independent sector, and that it should look different from the commercial sector in television and, just as importantly, in radio. I hope that putting that in and then having Ofcom adjudicate it will make a difference.
I agree on the distinctiveness point, because the BBC receives this public money, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the distinctiveness should go across all the channels, as opposed to the BBC just putting some distinctive programmes on certain niche channels? It should be spread across the whole range of the BBC, not just concentrated on a small element of it, leaving the major channels free not to be as distinctive as arguably they should be.
I agree, and it will ultimately be for Ofcom to decide whether the BBC is meeting that requirement. I do not think it should be applied to every individual programme, but each channel should be able to demonstrate that it is markedly different from an equivalent commercial channel. That should apply to radio as well as the mainstream TV channels. That is a significant change.
When the right hon. Gentleman was Secretary of State, did he ever look into the disproportionate amount of money distributed to the regions in comparison with London? I am sure the right hon. Gentleman knows that some of the regions are very concerned about that.
I understand that, and there are particular regions—and indeed nations—that feel underserved and hard-done-by. In my view, the BBC made a good move in transferring a lot of its production and facilities to Salford—I was in favour of the establishment of the Media City in Salford—but that was not sufficient for the BBC to then sit back and say, “Right, we’ve done our bit for the English regions; we don’t have to worry any longer.” The west midlands has felt underserved, as has been debated in this House, and I have no doubt that John Nicolson, speaking for the Scottish National party, will talk about the provision of the service, and indeed employment and production, in Scotland. This is a live issue, and I believe the BBC needs to do more.
I want to touch briefly on two particular policy developments that I promoted and remain keen on. The first is the public service content fund. The hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) talked about the underspend on the provision for broadband and what will happen to it. I hope it will go to establish the public service content fund, which will provide programming in areas that are currently underserved, of which children’s television is certainly an example. It will be administered outside the BBC.
Does the right hon. Gentleman not think that there may be a chance with that development of an onerous bureaucracy being created that may cost the licence payer more, and may mean that the expertise in commissioning content is diminished?
I very much hope that there will not be additional bureaucracy. The precise way of administering it will need to be worked out. There is a valuable consequence of this: this is a very small pot of money, but it will mean that there is an alternative route—other than the BBC—for the obtaining of funding from the public purse for public service content. At present, the BBC has a monopoly in commissioning content with public money. That is in large part necessary, but it is worth exploring this alternative route.
My memory is not great and I have only been reading into the brief for 10 days, but I think that the figure is about £60 million. Does the right hon. Gentleman envisage that being an ongoing demand on the BBC, or will it be a one-off pot as a result of the underspend?
Where the money is coming from has been identified: it is coming from the underspend, as the hon. Gentleman flagged up in his remarks, and that is obviously over a set period; it is not ongoing. We will judge the success of it. It will be to some extent for the BBC to decide whether it is a success, and also for the Government to decide, but I am content that, certainly for the next three years, it is in place.
The other innovation I am very committed to, and to which the director-general has given a lot of support, is the provision for the BBC to support local media through the establishment of local news reporting and the buying-in of content. The purpose of that is first to address an extremely serious issue: the decline of local media and the consequences of that for local accountability and democracy. This alone is not going to solve that as it is a very big issue, but it is a recognition that the BBC has taken content from local newspapers often without even attributing it to the local paper, let alone giving any money for it. This will ensure that local newspapers continue to cover local institutions—local councils, courts proceedings and so forth, which are extremely important for the functioning of local democracy. It seems to me a legitimate use of the licence fee to do this and I welcome the support the BBC has given to the move. It is important that the BBC should not directly employ these people: if it turned out that a local newspaper could reduce their employment even more because the BBC would pick up and employ those people, it would further harm local media rather than helping. The important thing is that, through a tendering process, the BBC establishes a relationship in each area with a local media organisation—it does not need to be a newspaper; it could be a radio or television station—and supports it in ensuring that there is proper coverage of local political issues. That is new, and I hope it will help to sustain local media and local democracy in this country.
Finally, I want to touch on the future of the licence fee. I think I have been quoted in the past as saying that the licence fee was worse than the poll tax. When I said that, it was simply an observation that the licence fee is a flat-rate charge payable by every household and, unlike the community charge, no help is available even for those on very low incomes. It was simply an observation of that. The licence fee has many flaws—it is regressive, it is hard to collect, and there is the iPlayer loophole enabling people to evade it, which we are now closing—but I think the Government are right that for this charter period the licence fee should continue. The speed of change in the way that people receive television is very fast and there may well come a moment when the technology has advanced so that the old argument that everybody consumes the BBC in one form or another is no longer true. Also, if television is distributed via the internet, which is coming and I believe will eventually be the universal method of distribution, that will be the moment when it is possible to experiment with things like conditional access subscriptions. I therefore welcome the fact that the BBC has agreed to put a small toe into the water and use the iPlayer perhaps to supply some additional content on a voluntary subscription basis. That is a small step, but it will shed light on our potentially one day moving towards a voluntary system of subscription to the BBC. The technology does not permit that now, and I do not think it is appropriate now, but I welcome the fact that the BBC has agreed to make that first small step.
I conclude by saying once again that I believe the draft agreement and charter represent a sound foundation for the future of the BBC. I would like to take some small credit, despite all those who told me I was hell-bent on destruction. That was not the case, and I hope this proves it.
I beg to move the amendment in the name of my right hon. and hon. Friends.
The BBC is one of the most important and influential cultural, social, economic and democratic institutions in our country, and I welcome this opportunity to debate its future further. I think we all agree on many things, including how important the BBC is, but there is also significant agreement on the areas in which we criticise it.
The new shadow Secretary of State, Mr Watson, illustrated very effectively how worried many of us are about the lack of diversity in the organisation, and the debate initiated by Mr Lammy on diversity in the BBC won widespread agreement throughout the House. There is a shocking shortage of senior black and minority figures at the very top of the BBC. We all believe that the BBC should reflect the nation. When we turn on the television, the nation should be reflected back at us, but too often it is not. We do not see enough black and minority faces on screen. There are also not enough lesbian and gay people in senior management positions or, more importantly, on screen as authority figures, where they should be seen. I have made this point before. The BBC has always been absolutely fantastic at attracting gay people into comedy roles and on to gameshows, but they are not the authority figures who present the news, as they should be.
Indeed I do. That is a very fair point. The BBC would probably argue it has been effective at hiring minority figures backstage and at the more junior levels, but the real problem arises when it comes to promotion. That is very obvious when we see the most senior presenters on screen or when we are in meetings with the most senior management figures. The BBC clearly has to address these concerns as a matter of urgency. It is great at setting targets, but it is not so good at actually delivering them. They are often set years in advance, and by the time we get to the end stage, we have all forgotten what the target was in the first place, so it sets new targets for us to get excited about. It is time for that to stop. It is time for the BBC to deliver.
I associate myself with the widespread criticism of the agreement over the licence fee for the over-75s. That deal was done in secret between BBC managers and the Government. When Tony Hall appeared before us in the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, he told us that his staff were delighted with the deal. I had to pinch myself. Anyone who has spent a nanosecond talking to any of the BBC’s staff knows that they thought it was absolutely disastrous because of the effect it will have on programme-making budgets. Also, importantly, it is not the role of the BBC to deliver social provision. The BBC is a broadcaster. It is the Government’s role to deliver social provision. This was clearly not a satisfactory development, and it is one that we deplore.
I suggest that the BBC management should have taken a leaf out of Channel 4’s book. When faced with a deal that did not look as though it will be good for them, they should have phoned a couple of politicians who were on their side to see whether they could intervene on their behalf, rather than negotiating in secret. That negotiation turned out to be disastrous because they were not that good at doing deals behind closed doors. If they had asked their pals for a bit of assistance, they might have done better.
The hon. Gentleman is making an important point about those negotiations. To be fair to the BBC, however, the blame lies with the Government, who took the BBC to the brink and then offered it a deal that it had no choice but to accept.
Except, of course, that the previous director-general, when faced with precisely this threat, threatened to resign. The Government blinked first on that occasion. The BBC has enormous power if it plays its cards well.
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the BBC probably breathed a sigh of relief at getting off so lightly in that deal? It now has an increased licence fee and a five-year review, which probably means nothing, but it has had enough money this year to increase its wage bill by £21 million.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point about BBC salaries, and I shall say more about that later. They are ludicrously inflated at senior levels. The director-general often says, “We pay these huge salaries because that is the going rate in the outside world.” The BBC does not actually know that, however, because nobody ever wants to put it to the test by leaving a senior post in the BBC. They know that they will never achieve such high salaries in the outside world. I asked the director-general if he had ever conducted a study on what his senior staff got when they left the BBC and went into the industry outside. He told me that he had never conducted such a study.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman would agree that in any other business, whatever it might be—even local government—those outside salary levels would be tested. The market is always tested when setting salaries.
That is precisely the point I made to the director-general. I asked him whether he had tested this, given that he always argued that he was paying the going rate. His answer was that he had not tested it, so his whole argument for paying people ludicrously inflated salaries fell with that one answer.
As Mr Whittingdale predicted, I am now going to talk about Scotland. It has been clear for a significant period of time that the BBC is not delivering for Scotland in the way that it should be. Audience satisfaction ratings show that Scots do not feel that the corporation fully represents their views and interests. Appreciation measures in Scotland are lower than the average for the rest of the UK, and people in Scotland think that the BBC is poorer at representing their lives in news, current affairs and drama, compared with people in other parts of the UK. Members do not have to take my word for that; the BBC fully acknowledges that problem.
We on the Scottish National party Benches here in Westminster and our colleagues in Holyrood and the Scottish Government are committed to high-quality, well-resourced public service broadcasting, and we want a BBC charter that allows this. Charter renewal has been a valuable opportunity to provide a framework for the BBC that enables it to maintain its important role as a public service broadcaster, to improve its performance for Scottish and UK audiences and to provide further support for the Scottish production sector and those in our wider creative industries. For the first time, the Scottish Government and Holyrood have had a formal role in the charter renewal process, following the recommendations of the Smith commission. The SNP has delivered a clear and consistent message on the straightforward changes we believe would help to transform the BBC in Scotland for the better. We welcome a number of elements in the charter, but it is vital that the BBC now delivers.
The SNP has argued that the BBC needs an enforceable licence service agreement for Scotland and a dedicated board member for Scotland. There are clear reasons for this. A Scottish board would allow BBC Scotland to have greater control over its budget and to be given meaningful commissioning powers. The charter accepts SNP proposals for the BBC to report on its impact on the creative industries for the first time, but it does not make provisions for a fairer share of the licence fee raised in Scotland to be spent in Scotland. Such a provision could deliver up to an additional £100 million of investment annually in those creative industries. We welcome the commitment to continued support for the Gaelic language, but the Secretary of State refrained from going just a little further and moving towards parity with the Welsh channel S4C for MG Alba, as recommended by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, on which I serve.
The Select Committee supports many of the wider proposals in the draft charter. We welcome the abolition of the BBC Trust and its replacement by a unitary board, although, as I suggested in an intervention on the right hon. Member for Maldon, we were alarmed to see what I will gently describe as the rather relaxed method of selection for the new chair, when Rhona Fairhead moved seamlessly from her old job as chair of the BBC Trust to her new job as chair of the unitary board. The right hon. Gentleman said that the transition period was important because, to paraphrase slightly, the transition meant that she was effectively continuing in the same job. However, Ms Fairhead herself said that it was a completely different job, which is precisely why it should have been subject to open competition, rather than having arisen from a cosy chat between her and the Prime Minister, with no civil servants present. I discovered that during a heated Select Committee cross-examination that resulted in Ms Fairhead accepting that she should perhaps go.
The hon. Gentleman had a go at the director-general earlier, but Rona Fairhead should have been screaming blue murder when the Government were forcing their settlement on her. The whole point of her post is that she is meant to be independent and able to say to the Government, “No. You will not do this.”
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. That is precisely Ms Fairhead’s role and precisely why many of us found it disturbing that she had been appointed without open competition. What was the quid pro quo for getting a job such as that with no competition? She would have to be truly saintly not to feel slightly beholden to the people who had appointed her in that way.
Scotland’s frustrations with the BBC often focus on the provision of news, which is why I have led the calls for a new Scottish Six. The national news programme, “Reporting Scotland”, is treated as a regional news programme under current arrangements. It is under-resourced and cannot report on news outwith Scotland’s borders. The current six o’clock news does not work in the post-devolution age. Scottish viewers often have to sit through stories on devolved issues that are of no relevance to them, such as English health or English policing. It is a blast from the past and it needs to change.
“it is for the BBC, which has operational independence in this matter, to determine how exactly”—[Official Report,
Vol. 614, c. 1060.]
the Scottish Six would happen. The hon. Gentleman tweeted shortly afterwards:
“Good to hear Secretary of State confirm #ScottishSix is a matter for the BBC not government.”
Does the amendment not push the Government to make a decision about the Scottish Six, rather than leaving it in the hands of the editorial commissioning of the BBC, which he has been arguing for in the rest of his speech?
The hon. Gentleman confuses structure with editorial policy. It is perfectly reasonable for any of us to argue that there should be devolution of broadcasting and structural changes. That is why the all-party Culture, Media and Sport Committee came out unanimously in favour of a separate Scottish Six. It did not presume to tell the editors of a Scottish Six what the content should be. That is an editorial matter. Simply to recommend and advance the cause of the Scottish Six is structural, not editorial. It is important not to confuse the two.
I want to press this matter, because the Scottish Six is an incredibly important issue in Scottish broadcasting. I am undecided on whether it is a good thing, because I want good-quality Scottish news rather than a forced programme that may not be of the quality that people would expect, but that is a funding issue and a different argument. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that whether BBC Scotland initiates a Scottish Six is an editorial judgment for the BBC or a policy judgment for charter renewal?
That is a good question. I do not need to tell the hon. Gentleman that this subject has been party political for too long. I am a former journalist. I believe in independent journalism and want to see more jobs in journalism and want Scottish news to prosper. I have always found a certain irony here because people often say in Scottish political debate that there is not enough scrutiny of the Scottish Government. I do not know whether I agree or disagree with that, but that is what some say, particularly those in the Labour party. I am arguing for an hour-long programme in which the Scottish Government can be scrutinised for a full hour. That has to be a good thing. It would provide more opportunities for opposition politicians and more jobs. Crucially, I have talked to the journalists and it is also something that BBC Scotland wants.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Is that not an argument for the people of South Leicestershire and the other parts of the United Kingdom to hear about the Scottish Government’s failures? Is it not an argument for more Scots news on the UK’s main news, rather than for a separate news bulletin?
I fear that that is cloud cuckoo land. While I would not presume for one moment to tell the network editors what they should put on the news, I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that if somebody stood up at a newsroom editorial meeting and said, “You know what? I think we should have a 10-minute report on Scottish politics for the viewers of South Leicestershire,” I suspect that they would not get very far.
This is a matter of equality. Welsh speakers in Wales have news programmes specifically for them about Welsh and international matters, but 80% of non-Welsh speakers in Wales do not get the same thing through their screens. I am sure that the same issues arise in Scotland.
The hon. Lady makes a good point. There is a bit of irony here, because I looked at the Daily Mail after the Select Committee came out in favour of a separate Scottish Six and it condemned the decentralisation of broadcasting on a front page that was itself devolved. The Daily Mail does not run the same front page in Scotland as in the rest of the UK because it knows that the news priorities are different.
I am enjoying the hon. Gentleman’s contribution. I have not been party political about the Scottish six o’clock news and have never thought about it in detail—I am the new kid—but I am trying to understand whether his position has changed. When I was doing my homework, I found a question from him to the Secretary of State in a recent debate in which he said:
“Does the Secretary of State agree that the matter of a separate ‘Scottish Six’
is entirely the responsibility of the BBC”?—[Official Report,
Vol. 614, c. 1060.]
The hon. Gentleman seems to contradict that in his speech this afternoon. Has his thinking changed?
I am delighted to explain. In answer to my questions, both the former and current Secretaries of State said that, while agreeing that Scotland was under-served and accepting the BBC’s analysis that it is not trusted in Scotland, the job of news was to bring the nation together. I do not believe that it is. The job of the BBC is to report without fear or favour and to provide the best possible news for its viewers, rather than acting as a cheerleader for one constitutional settlement or another. The BBC should devolve as much as possible. I believe in the concept of a separate Scottish Six. Politicians should stand back and allow the BBC to decide the form and content of that programme—[Interruption.] If Alberto Costa wants to ask me a question, he is free to, but if he mumbles, I cannot hear him.
There was a vigorous debate in Scotland in which both sides accused each other—[Interruption.] I heard the hon. Gentleman; he does not have to repeat himself. Both sides accused each other of bullying. The BBC said that it should have learned lessons from the referendum campaign, and there is an important argument about exactly how the BBC should cover referendums. The coverage when there is a binary choice should be different from that during a multi-party election and I think the BBC accepts that it covered the referendum campaign like a general election rather than a binary choice. The BBC got itself into a bit of a fankle because it said—defending itself immediately as it tends to do—that there were no lessons to learn and that no mistakes were made. Almost immediately after, however, it said that it must learn the lessons of the Scottish referendum campaign for the way in which it covered the European Union referendum campaign. That is intellectually incoherent; it cannot say, “Our coverage was perfect,” and at the same time say, “We will learn the lessons from the previous campaign.”
I would like to move on to the next part of my speech, so I will not take the intervention.
The important thing for all of us is to remember that BBC Radio Scotland and BBC Alba have been doing exactly what is being proposed—for decades in the case of BBC Radio Scotland; they have a grown-up running order, where the UK’s, Scotland’s or the world’s most important story that night leads the news. All of us therefore have to think about how we would feel if we opened a newspaper and it contained only Welsh stories, only English stories or only Scottish stories. Such a newspaper would be most peculiar, yet this is the position in which the BBC finds itself in Scotland.
I believe that our proposal would present new opportunities for the talented and skilled professionals in Scotland. It would create new jobs and open new horizons. It would bring investment and assist BBC Scotland in building its reputation as a high-quality broadcaster. Of course, it is also vital that we recognise that this is what the BBC staff want. The editor of “Reporting Scotland”, Andrew Browne, has said that they are “really keen” to see a separate Scottish Six and that he would love to take this programme forward. He said:
“It’s got world news, it’s got Scottish news, it’s got UK news, it’s something we can do. Any journalist would want to work on a programme like that.”
However, he added the following caveat:
“It’s for people much higher up in the BBC to decide whether or not this is the right direction to go with for news.”
Meanwhile STV saw a gap in the market and, while the BBC anguished, probably worrying about what politicians thought in a way that it should not, it has outflanked the BBC by announcing a Scottish Seven, to be launched in 2017.
There lies a problem at the heart of BBC Scotland: without a fairer share of the licence fee, without greater control of its own budget and without the authority to make commissioning decisions, BBC Scotland too often relies on the decisions of executives in London—invariably—granting it permission over what it can and cannot do. Meaningful editorial and financial control must be transferred north of the border. The opportunity to invest in people and in our creative industries must be realised. Maximum devolution of broadcasting to Scotland is necessary to deliver the high-quality, well-resourced public service broadcasting sector that Scotland deserves.
I am very grateful, as the hon. Gentleman has been incredibly generous with his time. We want to support your motion, so will you give clarity about what it actually says? Are you saying that a Scottish Six, in the BBC News Scotland context, is an editorial decision for the BBC in Scotland—I hope that is what the motion says—or that you are looking to make this a policy decision in the charter? The latter would not be desirable, and I think he is arguing the same.
Order. A lot of people are using the word “you” when they mean hon. Members. I gently remind people that when they say “you,” they are referring to the Chair.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is important that there should not be political interference in the decision about whether or not there is a separate Scottish Six. I have made this point repeatedly. I am encouraging the BBC to continue fearlessly with its current proposals, to continue with the pilots and to provide jobs and investment in the way that it wants to do and that its staff want to do. The BBC is rich in talent and creativity. Its strength is its extraordinary workforce. We have, in the course of our charter deliberations, made clear our passionate support for public service broadcasting. Where we have offered criticism, we hope we have been constructive, and much of our criticism has been accepted by the BBC. We urge it now to translate its aspirations into delivery.
Order. For the avoidance of doubt, let me say that at the beginning of the hon. Gentleman’s speech he attempted to move the amendment, but he was speaking to the motion. He will be called to move the amendment formally at the end of the debate.
Much of today’s debate will doubtless focus on issues such as governance, compliance, regulation, independence, distinctiveness and financial stability, but I wish to use my time to raise again an issue that is far too often pushed to the margins: diversity and equal opportunities.
Last week, I attended the launch of the BBC’s “Black and British” season. It was at a hotel in Soho and it was well attended. The event gave us a glimpse of some bold, vibrant stories, intended to overturn various misconceptions and to challenge the orthodox. The aim was also to show what it really means to be black and British today. I must admit that when I arrived I was a little sceptical, but when I left I was a little emotional, because I had been taken on a journey back to the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, and then forward into the future, with a documentary speculating on whether we will ever have a black Prime Minister, by some brilliant, diverse writers, presenters, broadcasters, directors and producers. I think I witnessed the BBC operating at its very best, and I felt very proud of the institution and proud to be British. I felt excited about the future.
This desire and commitment to have even greater diversity at the BBC seems very genuine, and pretty well reflected in the draft charter and agreement, but there are three areas where clarification from the Secretary of State or the Minister for Digital and Culture, either in the wind-up or later in writing, would be helpful. I also wish to make one or two remarks about Ofcom.
First, although the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has published helpful information sheets on a large number of policy areas, no information sheet appears to have been produced on diversity and equal opportunities. I therefore ask the Secretary of State or her Minister to look into providing a comparable document as soon as possible.
Secondly, the draft charter states:
“The BBC must ensure it reflects the diverse communities of the whole of the United Kingdom in the content of its output, the means by which its output and services are delivered (including where its activities are carried out and by whom) and in the organisation and management of the BBC.”
Will the Secretary of State or her Minister please confirm that that diversity requirement applies to on-screen and off-screen employment from all suppliers, both internal and independent?
Thirdly, the agreement requires the BBC to promote equal opportunities in relation to disability, race and sex; to make people aware of its arrangements to achieve that; to review the arrangements; and to publish a report at least once a year on the “effectiveness of the arrangements”. On that latter requirement, I respectfully ask the Secretary of State and her Minister to pay special attention to the word “effectiveness”, because we need to know what works and what does not work. Too often in my life—in my experience both as a lawyer and a politician in this place—I have heard institutions boast good practice or best practice, but then found that good practice or best practice do not mean effective action, and we really do need effective action here.
Finally, Ofcom as a regulator is responsible for ensuring that the BBC’s diversity requirements are realised. I confess that in the past I have not been overly impressed by Ofcom’s response to statutory equality duties, but it now has a new chief executive officer who has promised a harder-edged approach to diversity. She has also mentioned quotas and, if necessary, ring-fenced funding. I hope that Sharon White’s words are reflected in action, and I shall watch very carefully.
The hon. Lady is making a characteristically powerful speech. Given the diversity of the population under the age of 18, does she agree that it is particularly important that we have a home-grown capacity for making children’s programmes so that the programmes that children watch reflect the communities in which they live?
The hon. Lady makes a very good point. I would be extremely interested to look into that sort of idea.
Many people listening to this debate today have worked so, so hard for years to advance diversity in the arts and creative industries. There is still much to do and still a way to go, but I do feel that we are on the brink of some real progress. I therefore take this opportunity to pay tribute to the former Culture Minister, my right hon. Friend Mr Vaizey, and to all those committed individuals both inside and outside Parliament such as Simon Albury of the Campaign for Broadcasting Equality who never seemed to give up.
May I begin by saying to colleagues around the Chamber that, since I stood down from the Front Bench in June, I have agreed to take on the secretaryship of the all-party parliamentary group on the BBC?
I welcome the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and the Minister for Digital and Culture to their places. Both of them are new to the job but not to government. I also commend my hon. Friend Mr Watson for his debut at the Dispatch Box in this role, and I wish him well.
Although the new Ministers have come late to the process of BBC charter renewal, it is now for them to finish off all the work that has been done so far. I am glad to see that some of the more lurid fantasies of the former Secretary of State, Mr Whittingdale, whom I am really pleased to see in his place, will be well and truly finished off by the time the new charter becomes operational.
I am sure that the Secretary of State and the Minister have realised already the incredibly high esteem in which the BBC is held by our constituents, who pay for and consume its services, and the concomitant interest and campaigning about the process of charter renewal. There is a wish around the country, the nations and the regions that the Government get this charter right.
Let me give the Government some credit—not something I often do. The end result looks like it will be better than many of us had feared. Let me also be clear that one or two concerns remain, and I will come on to mention them in my remarks.
When we consider the future of the BBC, we should always keep in mind both its great history at the centre of our national life—Members do that when they make contributions to this debate—and the fact that it is one of our most loved institutions. It is behind only the monarch, our armed forces and the national health service in the esteem in which it is held, so loved and valued it most certainly is.
The consultation on the Green Paper as part of the charter renewal process review simply reiterated the extent to which that is so. Those of us who knock on the doors of our constituents and try to get them to approve of what we do in our jobs can only look on in awe at an 81% approval rating—81% of the public believe that the BBC does a good job. We would all wish for such a high level of approval from those for whom we seek to work. That high approval rate is combined with the fact that a very high number of people in this country—some 97%—consume BBC services for an average of 18 hours a week. That is an impressive set of figures, which we should all bear in mind when we consider the future of the BBC.
The public have taken part in the charter review period, in so far as they have been able, by way of the consultation on the Green Paper. As the Secretary of State mentioned in her own remarks, some 192,000 people have replied. Three quarters of them believed that the BBC should remain independent, and two thirds that the BBC has a positive wider impact on the market and that BBC expansion is justified. The BBC is also a lynchpin of our creative industries, and our broader creative industries, in the whole of the UK. It allows us to punch well above our weight as a nation in exporting creative output to the rest of the world, as well as being a key component in the soft power on which even our new Foreign Secretary has commented as he starts to get to grips with his new role. Both of those things are even more important after the referendum on
The hon. Lady talks about how popular the BBC is, and she is completely right, but when 75% of UK adults rely on the BBC for a large amount of their news does she agree that it is very, very important that the BBC is, and is seen to be, impartial?
I do agree with that, but it is also important that the BBC is the judge of impartiality and is held to account for it. We should not be able to override it from this Chamber, because we—on both sides of the House—are not impartial.
A good charter must guarantee that the BBC’s editorial independence is beyond doubt. It must guarantee that the BBC’s financial independence will continue and it has to help it to fulfil its mission to educate, inform and entertain. That is the yardstick by which we should judge this charter.
The 11-year length of the charter is a good thing because that provides stability and takes the next review out of the political cycle into which Parliament’s passage of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 had suddenly pitched it. I am, however, still a little concerned that the mid-term review—it will presumably take place after five and a half years—or health check, as Ministers have imaginatively dubbed it, might be deeply destabilising if there is a will in government to exploit that process.
We have been reassured that this will not be a mini-charter review, as is feared. The Minister in the other place, Lord Ashton of Hyde, said that it would consider only governance and regulation, not the scope and scale of the BBC. However, halfway through the charter, a change in governance and regulation from the current proposals could leave things looking very different from how they do at present. When the Minister replies to the debate, will he give us some reassurance about the kind of change that he envisages this mid-charter review—or health check or mid-term review—might seek to make?
“have to stand the test of time and prove itself”.—[Official Report, House of Lords,
Vol. 774, c. 1995.]
Might this mini-charter review lead to Ofcom being stripped of its regulatory function, if it does not stand up to some test that that Minister seemed to be setting for it? Precisely what kind of review does the Minister for Digital and Culture envisage? When he responds about Ofcom, can he give us the assurance that the Secretary of State did not quite give me in my intervention on her about the resources that Ofcom will be given to carry out its considerably extended role? The right hon. Lady did not say that Ofcom would be given new resources or the resources of the existing trust. We need to know what resources Ofcom will have to do the important and completely new job that it is given under the charter.
The hon. Lady is extremely generous in giving way; I thank her for indulging me. We will have a new regulatory regime for the BBC. Ofcom will replace the BBC Trust, in which there was no trust. We talk about a health check. If I went to the doctor for a health check and he found that I had some horrible disease, I would expect him to take action. I would expect the Government to take action if, at the health check, the new regulatory regime was found not to be working.
The hon. Gentleman employs an extended metaphor. I do not quite understand how that would apply in respect of the mid-term review. I do not know why the mid-term review was not simply dropped. It seems to me that Ministers have been casting about to try to find some purpose for it because they did not want to accept that the mid-term review or the break clause had started out as something different from how it ended up. I am not sure what the role of the review is, so when the Minister winds up the debate, I hope that he will be able to give us a little more reassurance.
It was said in the other place that governance would form part of that mid-term review, so what kind of change to governance, if any, is it likely to make? To what extent might there be some change in the air? If the Government do not like how the arrangements that they set out in the charter are proceeding, will we see a wholesale change at mid-term to the governance of the BBC? What steps will the Government take to ensure that any such changes are as fully scrutinised as the arrangements for the new charter have been? There is not necessarily a parliamentary aspect of the mid-term review or health check.
We had an exchange about governance earlier. I welcome the fact there is to be a competition for the new chair of the BBC Board. I was critical that the chair of the BBC Trust had simply been appointed to what is a rather different role without any competition at all and at the behest, it seems, of the previous Prime Minister—though not, I suspect, at the behest of the former Secretary of State. I emphasise that I am not and was not commenting on the ability or otherwise of Rona Fairhead to do the job, but simply on the principle of the matter. In any event, she has decided not to put herself forward, so the BBC will have a new chair. Opposition Members are mindful of what the outgoing Commissioner for Public Appointments, Sir David Normington, said about the Government’s increasing propensity to appoint Tory supporters to important public roles, so we will be watching this particularly sensitive appointment with extremely close interest.
I welcome the fact that the Government have abandoned the previous Secretary of State’s attempt to enable the Government to appoint a majority of the unitary board, which I do not believe was a sensible proposal. The retreat that the Government have agreed to, following discussions with the BBC, is a good one, because they could have led themselves into criticisms that they would rather not have. I think that the development is entirely positive.
I want to say a little about the thorny topic of distinctiveness. What on earth does “distinctiveness” now mean in the context of the charter? We know what Mr Whittingdale thought it meant. Indeed, today he reiterated in part his view of what it means—we got the distinct impression that anything popular, commercial or with good ratings would not be distinctive enough. He thought that the BBC should be prevented from engaging in any kind of competition with its commercial rivals in this respect, but what does that mean in the context of the new charter?
I think that the definition in the White Paper is fiendish, because “substantially different” can mean whatever anybody wants it to mean. We are assured by Ministers that it will not be applied to individual programming. To be fair to the right hon. Gentleman, I never heard him say that he meant it to apply to individual programming, except in some lurid newspaper stories that seemed to be coming from his Department at the time. The Government have simply left it to Ofcom, which is not used to doing this kind of thing, to work this all out later. In my view, there is still a significant prospect of this being used mendaciously, either by politicians—perish the thought—or by the BBC’s commercial rivals, who might simply want to stop the BBC competing with them by making complaints about distinctiveness.
The hon. Lady makes an important point about the meaning of “distinctiveness”, but does she not agree that there is also an important point about the BBC, with the vast amount of money it acquires from the licence fee payer, having an unfair advantage over other commercial operators? There has to be a way of ensuring that that advantage is not abused to prevent commercial operators competing for good programmes.
The BBC ought to be held to account for how it spends its money, whether or not it meets its objectives and its requirements under the charter. I think that that is absolutely fair. We should not get into arguments about whether particular programmes are sufficiently distinctive or different. The definition is a lawyer’s dream, and there are concerns about what it will end up meaning in practice.
We have heard tell of the £60 million contestable pot of licence fee payers’ money. The survival of that pot is a retrograde step, no matter what use it is to be put to. I note that there is supposed to be some kind of pilot and that commissioning children’s programmes is to be involved in whatever is done with the money from the underspend. The fact is that the Government are establishing the principle that licence fee payers’ money should be handed over to the BBC’s commercial rivals to make programmes. That is different from the BBC itself deciding that it might want to commission programming from independent producers, which it of course does a lot of as part of the way it does its business. The problem is that if the contestable pot simply takes money away from the BBC and gives it to its rivals to make their own programmes without any of the guarantees that the BBC would have for maintaining ethos and quality, it is no more than a raid on the BBC’s resources. That could be the thin end of what might end up being a very large wedge.
We saw newspaper reports before the White Paper was published about a contestable pot involving a lot more than £60 million. Although the pot is currently small and has been identified as a way of using underspends, the possibility that it will expand over time and that a principle will be established that licence fee payers’ money is not to be used by the BBC to fulfil its mission could be significant. I therefore would like some assurances from the Government that the contestable pot will not be vastly expanded during the period of this charter review. I do not think that it should be proceeded with at all.
I want to say a little about salary transparency. We have heard the argument that publishing the salaries of the so-called talent in the BBC is an issue of transparency. I understand that argument, but I want to put an alternative viewpoint. Far from being about transparency, this is actually a tabloid editor’s dream and a destructive bit of punishment for anybody who wants to work for the BBC rather than a commercial broadcaster. Why is it right to invade the privacy of those who work for the BBC but not those who work for any of its commercial rivals? The Minister in the other place said that this requirement—
No—[Laughter.] I was halfway through a sentence. I might give way to the hon. Gentleman when I have finished it.
The Minister in the other place said that this requirement would not be extended to BBC Studios. BBC Studios will still be using public money—licence fee payers’ money—when it is commissioned to make programmes. Why is it right for parts of the BBC that are in the public bit of the BBC to have to meet this requirement when talent in other places commissioned by the BBC, using licence fee payers’ money, does not? Is this really about transparency, or is it about giving a stick to tabloid editors to have a go at the BBC?
The point about BBC Studios is that it is a commercial operation that will compete with other commercial operations. When the BBC commissions an independent company to produce content for it, the people employed by the independent company are not paid directly from the licence fee, so their salary is not declared under these arrangements. We want the same arrangements for Studios as for independent companies to enable competition. However, clearly, we also need to know how much of the licence fee is paid to those independent companies that then go on to make programmes such as “Top Gear” that we enjoy on the BBC.
This could lead to unintended consequences. When I was a trade unionist, the idea of comparability and of trying to get a pay rise because somebody else was doing a similar job was grist to the mill. If the proposal simply leads to costs for the BBC’s front-of-camera talent increasing, that might be an unintended consequence. I do not think this has been thought through.
The hon. Lady must recognise that there is a big distinction between people who are paid from the public purse and people who operate commercially in the private sector. The salaries of all of us in the House are publicly known, and it is entirely legitimate for the public to see where some of their money is going as far as salaries are concerned.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but if the ultimate bill is being paid by licence fee payers, why are they not entitled to transparency in respect of salaries just because an independent producer is involved? That is not consistent, and the proposal could have unintended consequences. This seems to be a populist measure, and it does not necessarily do the BBC any favours when it is trying to make sure it gets the talent that is available. It also gives commercial rivals a lot of inside information—published information —to allow them to see what it would take to poach talent. I do not see how that helps the BBC to fulfil its mission. I do not see the point of pursuing this vindictive little measure but, none the less, the Government have said they will implement it, so we will see how it goes.
It is good that we have got to a better place with the charter review than we might have done. From an early stage of the process, the Government seemed to be contemplating shrinking and diminishing the BBC. They denied that, but it was there in the background, and I think that if they could have got away with it, they would have done. However, a huge up-swell of support from our constituents and in both Houses of Parliament has stopped them. There are still pitfalls and problems that might end up being much bigger issues than they now appear to be, however, so we will keep an eye on how things go, especially leading up to the so-called mid-term review or health check. We will be watching to make sure that the Government do not go back to their original aims in the charter review of trying to do down the BBC. On behalf of our constituents who love and value the BBC as a great UK institution, we all hope that this charter does what the Secretary of State now says she wishes it to do, and we will make sure that it does.
I welcome the Secretary of State to this debate, although it is not her first as Secretary of State. I thank her for her consideration of the Select Committee’s report and the recommendations during the finalisation of the charter process. I also thank her predecessor, my right hon. Friend Mr Whittingdale, for the consideration that he gave to the Committee and its work in preparing the royal charter while he was Secretary of State. I welcome Mr Watson to his place. I know from our time together on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee in the previous Parliament that he will bring all of his great passion and energy to his new role. I look forward to seeing and hearing his contributions in these debates over the coming months and years.
The speech by Maria Eagle reminded me of the programme, “Civilisation”. In 1969, the great art historian Kenneth Clark produced an epic series of 13 50-minute-long episodes—a gargantuan undertaking—all about the nature of civilisation. He started off that great series by asking the rhetorical question, “What is civilisation?”, to which he replied, “I don’t know, but I think I recognise it when I see it.” The same formula could be applied to the idea of distinctiveness at the BBC. It is incredibly difficult to define, but somehow we recognise it when we see it. We want a BBC that, in celebrating its great ingenuity and creativity, takes risks that no other broadcaster would take. I am sure that the hon. Member for West Bromwich East agrees that putting Ed Balls in sparkly clothing and making him dance at peak time on a Saturday is something that no other broadcaster in the world would do. The BBC does it well and makes a success of it, and we celebrate its uniqueness.
It is right that along with assessing the BBC’s value for money, the decisions of its executives and how much money they earn, we also continue to apply the threshold of asking, “Is the BBC being true to its creative values? Is it continuing to be distinctive enough and to deliver across the great breadth of its programming, because of the unique way in which it is funded, something that no other broadcaster could do?” The BBC is one of our great national institutions. It is loved by everyone in this country, but that is because it has adapted and changed with the times. It has applied its creativity and ingenuity to the great breakthroughs in broadcasting, be it television, the internet, or the great breadth of digital services that it offers now. It has moved with the times and stayed close and true to its values.
The process of royal charter renewal every decade or so, the next one being in 11 years’ time, is about looking at not just what is best about the BBC that we should conserve and preserve for the future, but how we want it to adapt and change in the future. At the heart of the process has been a desire for much greater transparency in the way that the BBC operates. That is why I was pleased that the Select Committee consistently recommended that the National Audit Office should become the BBC’s principal auditor so that it had a chance to go in there and apply its forensic skills to see the ways in which the BBC is using its resources. That is the right approach to take.
The creation of the new unitary board recognises something that most people had already concluded for themselves—that the BBC Trust was not fit for purpose and not fulfilling its role correctly, and that we could do better. In particular, the dismissal of George Entwistle—which is, in effect, what happened—showed us that in a moment of crisis the chairman of the trust becomes, in effect, the chairman of the BBC, and steps in and intervenes in the way that the chairman of a board would do. That demonstrates that the BBC Trust was too conflicted to be an external regulator of the BBC as well as its principal champion and the representative of the licence fee payer’s interests.
The creation of the new unitary board is the right way forward. It also answers a question that has been asked consistently at Select Committee sittings over the past year, namely: who does the director-general report to? It was not particularly clear who he reported to, but now it is clear that he has independence of operation and his executive team to support him while he remains editor-in-chief, but that, post-transmission, he is answerable to a unitary board of the BBC. That is a much clearer management structure and it is welcome.
The other main proposal worth examining—the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood has mentioned this—is that relating to BBC Studios. The BBC clearly wants, and has got behind, that big initiative. I agree with the director-general’s analysis that making the studios more competitive and open will help make the BBC more creative and enable it to attract and hang on to some of the best creative talents who work not just on screen, but on taking ideas through to production and transmission. If the BBC recognises something that almost all other players in the TV market recognise, it is that the future of television for broadcasters lies not just in the growth of audiences and the transmission of content, but in owning and creating programmes and formats that can be exported around the world. The future of BBC revenues and its future creative success will very much be tied to the success of the BBC Studios proposals.
Alongside the BBC having that freedom to compete, independent production companies will also have more freedom to compete to produce programmes at the BBC. The former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon, was probably pivotal in pushing that forward; it certainly chimes with the things that he has said about the BBC in the past. The quotas for the BBC to commission out to independents remain, but much more of its commissioning work will now be liberalised, including that for repeat series. The BBC was not prepared to concede on that before, but it complements what it wants out of the studios proposals. I think that we may look back, not just during the review period, but during the next charter renewal, and say that the creative freedom and openness resulting from the studios proposal was one of the most significant reforms of the charter renewal process.
I want to pick up on one or two other points that have been made, particularly on the recommendations of the most recent Select Committee report. We support the decision to run a proper process for the appointment of the chairman of the new BBC unitary board. As other Members have said, it is a different and unique position, and there should have been a proper process to determine the best person. The Committee did not feel that Rona Fairhead should be excluded from that process. She has chosen to exclude herself, but nevertheless there should have been a proper process. The first chairman of the unitary board will hold a pivotal position and play a central role in appointing some of the independent directors, and it is vital that we have total confidence in the way in which they are appointed.
I also concur with the views of other Members—although there may be a difference of opinion on this—on the question of BBC salaries. The BBC had already conceded that executives who are paid more than the Prime Minister should declare their pay. It had also already accepted the principle of very highly paid on-screen performers and talent having their incomes declared, but it set the benchmark at the level of the director-general. Licence fee payers do not understand why on-screen talent is seen as being so different from off-screen talent, with one having to declare their salary and the other not. That layer of transparency was absolutely the right thing to do, and I am pleased to see it in the final draft of the charter.
On the need for transparency in appointments, what is my hon. Friend’s view of the appointment of James Purnell as head of radio? That has happened at a time when the BBC is bringing in diversity quotas across all its employment, and yet Mr Purnell got that job with no competition whatsoever. Anyone would think that the job had been made for him.
It is a new post and it was literally made for him. It was not advertised widely for other people to apply for it. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon said in his speech—I said this in an intervention as well—that, regardless of people’s views of the capabilities of James Purnell, or concerns that people may have about his past political involvement, the key thing is the process that was run to appoint one of the most senior directors at the BBC. Why was there no competition within—or, indeed, outside—the BBC involving people who may have had the requisite skills to apply for the job? If we are going to be critical of the way in which Rona Fairhead was appointed as interim chair of the BBC—as I have said, that should have been a clear and transparent process—that should also apply to other senior executives, including those on the BBC board. That certainly applies in the case of James Purnell; I agree with my hon. Friend Andrew Bridgen.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the transparency applied to those on top salaries should also be applied to those who are on contracts that enable them to avoid tax either by paying only corporation tax on money that is paid directly to them, or by participating in tax avoidance schemes, which the BBC now uses for hundreds of its well-paid employees?
I completely understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. People must certainly pay the taxes that are due on the income that they receive, wherever it comes from. That applies to BBC executives as much as to anyone else. I note what the Secretary of State said in her intervention a few moments ago, and I believe that this is something that we must keep under close review. If BBC Talent is trying to use a loophole by channelling more of its income through independent production companies to avoid having to declare it—our concern, through the work of the National Audit Office, is that there has been an acceleration in that process and that people are trying to get around the rule in the new charter that those who earn more than £150,000 should declare what they earn—we should look again at the matter in the mid-point review.
I want to touch on the comments about the Scottish Six made by my friend on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, John Nicolson. As I was the acting Chair of the Committee and a member of the Committee when we discussed the matter, I was able to give my view on the significance of the Scottish Six. We felt—I certainly felt this, and I hope the hon. Gentleman agrees—that we were calling for the BBC in Scotland to be given editorial independence over the six o’clock news, so that it could reflect the fact that devolution made certain news items less relevant to the Scottish audience than to the rest of the UK audience. We envisaged that the BBC in Scotland would have the editorial independence to make those decisions and the freedom to change the running order of the programme if it chose to do so. The Scottish Six would still be a national news programme, but it would be broadcast from Scotland, it would be produced and edited in Scotland and it would have a Scottish perspective on the national news. We considered the fact that the BBC was comfortable to make that decision with radio, so why should it not consider doing so for television?
That is, of course, an editorial decision for the BBC to make, but one of the things that the Committee hoped to do with this recommendation in the report was to give the BBC a shove and say, “You have been looking at this for quite a long time, you have tried various different formats and you have tried to make a decision. Here is our view, but it remains something for you to do.” I agree with the comments made a few weeks ago by the Secretary of State. I think I am right in interpreting her as saying that, as others have discussed, the Government should not dictate to the BBC what it should do about this; it is a decision for the BBC to make.
Finally, I want to touch on the BBC iPlayer, which has been mentioned. It is important that we remove the loophole whereby people can get out of paying the licence fee by watching programmes—both catch-up and live—on the BBC iPlayer. This also takes us into important new territory that the BBC should explore. By far the most practical way to police such an arrangement would be to give each licence fee payer a PIN that they could put into a portable device to access the iPlayer, to prove that they had paid the licence fee. That is common in other digital services that people use all the time, and it would be the simplest and most logical way to proceed. It would certainly be a lot easier than having digital enforcement cameras—a modern-day version of the TV detector van—going around, trying to work out whether people were viewing the BBC online.
One of the reactions of people in the BBC to such a suggestion is that they do not like the idea of licence fee payers becoming subscribers, or of the BBC becoming a subscription service. I do not think that that would be the case at all. That suggestion is simply an acknowledgement of the fact that new technology allows people to access BBC services in a different way. Those services are still free to access and use for people who pay the licence fee. We would simply be using new technology to make them more readily available.
I believe that a sensible step forward would be to have complementary subscription services that gave people deeper access to the back catalogue and enabled them to stream other programmes that might not be available for broadcast. That would allow the BBC to grow its revenues from its back catalogue and to be innovative in its programme making. It would in no way represent a shift away from the licence fee-funded BBC; it would simply be a recognition of the fact that new technology, platforms and tools will allow the BBC to innovate in ways that simply were not possible in the past. Over this charter renewal process, I would like to see the BBC taking further steps in that direction.
The renewal of the BBC charter is taking place at a seminal moment for the BBC and for the broadcasting industry in general. The dominant position of our public service broadcasters is being challenged by Netflix, Amazon Prime, and cable and satellite TV stations more broadly. As I said in the debate on diversity in the BBC, it is worrying that there has been a trend among ethnic minorities in this country and certainly among first-generation immigrants to return to broadcasters in their original languages and to turn away from the BBC.
Clearly, the BBC is in a unique position both as a national broadcaster and as one of our most cherished institutions, right at the heart of our social fabric and our shared national conversation. At a time in our country when, very sadly, there has been a rise in hate crime and there is a deep concern on both sides of the House and across all political parties about a divided Britain, it is very important that the BBC understands its responsibility—this cuts to the heart of its distinctiveness—to be at the centre of such a shared conversation and of the manner in which we can see reflections of ourselves. Even though I am very clearly on one side of the Brexit debate, I must say that I absolutely want to see reflections in the BBC of people in this country with an older age profile, those from working-class backgrounds or those who live in our seaside towns, as much as I want to see reflections of so many of my constituents, who speak over 200 languages.
I entirely endorse what the right hon. Gentleman has said. Does he agree that the BBC did a very good job during the referendum campaign in holding a fair balance of both sides of the argument? Irrespective of the fact that he is on one side and I am on the other, does he share my slight concern that the BBC has not held that balance quite so well since the referendum came and went?
I will not be tempted into talking about the BBC’s coverage during that debate, but given the salaries paid to senior executives and talent, and much has been said about that today, the BBC’s real understanding of the true fabric of this country beyond west and north London, where so many of the executives seem to live—I say this as a representative of a north London constituency—and the way in which it portrays things that are often quite difficult and reaches into places that are quite at odds with each other are genuinely important. The BBC does that not just in its news coverage, but in the sorts of documentaries and dramas it commissions and in the sorts of faces that become those that so many British people from different backgrounds allow into their front rooms during the day.
We debated diversity in the BBC for the first time on the Floor of the House back in April, and I welcome the new public purpose in the draft royal charter, published last month, which unambiguously commits the BBC to
“reflect, represent and serve the diverse communities of all of the United Kingdom’s nations and regions”.
I am quite sure that, right across the House, we are celebrating that move. May I congratulate Mr Vaizey on his work on diversity during his time as the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy? I really enjoyed being a Culture Minister in a previous Government, and it was my belief that there would never be a Minister as good as me, but it turns out that there was.
The draft BBC framework agreement states that the
“BBC must make arrangements for promoting…equality of opportunity”,
irrespective of gender, disability, race or sexual orientation. Crucially, the draft agreement also sets out that the BBC must publish an annual report on the effectiveness of its policies for promoting equality of opportunity. This is a really important point. In the 16 years since the BBC published its first diversity strategy, it has not published any evaluation of the effectiveness of its efforts. If we are to see real progress, we must first know what works and what does not work. Members who spoke in the debate in April will be well aware that since 1999 we have had 30 BBC initiatives and strategies aimed at improving the representation of black, Asian and ethnic minority communities, but between 2011 and 2015 the proportion of the BBC’s workforce that was from a black, Asian or ethnic minority background has increased by only 0.9 % to 13.1%, and only 7.1 % of the BBC’s senior leadership in TV are black, Asian or minority ethnic.
It worries me that the BBC is one of the organisations in which we routinely hear language such as, “This person or that person is going to be the next director-general,” “This person or that person will one day be head of drama,” or “This person or that person is at Sky or Channel 4 and we expect them to come across in a few years’ time.” Given the profile of those people, I am likely to bump into them if I happen to go down Muswell Hill Broadway on Saturday afternoon. That is not good enough. We should not have that expectation. We should reach far beyond that. It is just a bit too cosy and we do not want that kind of cosy friends relationship—despite the nice things I said about James Purnell, who is a friend of mine—in at our national broadcaster.
Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that one of the problems in encouraging more people to enter the BBC is that often work experience positions are advertised with no pay, or not advertised at all? People have to be fairly well off to go to work at the BBC for a couple of months without earning a penny piece.
It is clearly not possible for a young person, or even a slightly older person, who is not situated in London or does not have parents who can put them up and see them through, to take up those opportunities. It will exclude swathes of people, and the standard has to be higher.
In the previous debate, there was much reflection on other broadcasters, and some people asked me, “Why are you picking on the BBC?” Let me be clear: I will always consider myself a tremendous friend of the BBC. In my own television viewing and radio listening habits, I constantly switch on the BBC and I am really pleased with so much of its output. But because it is the national broadcaster, it has a higher standard. I pay tribute to my good friend Baroness King, who is leaving the UK to go to the United States but who has done a great job as head of diversity at Channel 4. She has led the way, and Channel 4 is being bold on targets, taking a 360° approach and setting clear guidelines for its independent producers. It is leading the debate consistently, bringing people such as Idris Elba into this place to lead the public conversation. My challenge to the BBC is to say, “We expect you to occupy the same territory and to go further.” It should not be about this House leading the BBC in that direction: the BBC should, to some extent, lead us in the future. We expect a higher standard, and the public purpose should ensure that reflecting and representing the diversity of the UK is embedded into the BBC.
In any large organisation, including this place, people are always being identified by their peers, with people saying, “That fellow or that lady is going to go to the top.” It seems a bit rich to say that the BBC should not do that when all organisations have that sort of culture. I do not think it means to have it.
The hon. Gentleman is of course right, but more often than not, when we rely on those statements and they come to pass, we miss out on seeing and looking at people who do not fit the mould, most often—I say this with great respect—of the white, upper-middle-class men who have occupied that role in the past. It might have been said about the leadership of the hon. Gentleman’s party in the mid-1970s that “So-and-so is going to take that role,” and Margaret Thatcher did not fit the bill. Of course we get people occasionally breaking through, but I am saying that, really, our national broadcaster has to do a lot more. When we look at the top leadership team over consecutive years and decades, progress in this regard really has been quite slow.
The crucial point is that we need to see progress in terms of the BBC’s latest diversity strategy, which was announced in April and runs to 2020. Off-screen employment is just as important as on-screen employment, as Mrs Grant suggested in her excellent contribution, so a pledge to have a workforce at least as diverse as any other industry is welcome. The make-up of senior management and leadership positions is arguably more important than who is being hired as apprentices or runners, so targets of 50% women, 15% ethnic minorities, 8% people with a disability and 15% LGBT individuals in leadership roles is an ambitious goal, but it represents a huge step forward.
It is important that diversity requirements are embedded into contracts with suppliers and independent production companies commissioned to produce content. Yesterday, the BBC unveiled new commissioning guidelines that make it compulsory for independent production companies to “consider” diversity and state that there will be “a conversation” about diversity plans ahead of all commissioning decisions. One has to ask, what does that actually mean in practice? The new guidelines use the word “consider” 12 times, but do not set out any specific minimum requirements except to have a diversity and inclusion policy in place. In fact, the guidelines only use the word “must” once: people “must” tell the BBC if they cannot work with these guidelines.
The BBC has committed to opening up its budgets to independent production companies by removing all existing in-house guarantees except for news and news-related current affairs. By the end of the current charter period, 100% of drama, comedy, entertainment and factual hours will up for grabs, and in 2019 competition will also be introduced into children’s, sport and non-news current affairs programmes. In this new “era of the indies” this will become increasingly important. If the BBC is serious about reaching the ambitious targets it has set for itself, it needs to be clear about what is expected of independent production companies. I have to say that guidelines requiring only “consideration” or “a conversation” about diversity appears weak.
In contrast, Channel 4’s commissioning diversity guidelines state that at least one of the lead characters must be from an ethnic minority background, or have a disability, or be LGBT, that at least 15% of the production team must be from an ethnic minority or have a disability and that at least one of the senior directors, editors or producers must be from an ethnic minority or have a disability. That is much bolder. I was watching Channel 4’s “National Treasure” last week—a wonderful four-part drama touching on the terrible issue of sexual abuse in our society. Julie Walters was wonderful, as were her grandchildren. It struck me as I watched the programme with my wife, having put our own mixed-race children to bed, that the two lead white characters were well-known actors, but their grandchildren were mixed race. I thought, “Great! They have done it.” They had reflected gently what was needed—this episode was not central to the storyline—and there it was: a reflection of my family and my children that is rarely seen on television. That is how it can be done, which is why I am surprised that considering or thinking about a conversation is all we have had in the BBC context.
There has obviously been a debate raging for some time; it has been led by Sir Lenny Henry, to whom I pay tribute. We have seen a 400% increase in the number of programmes produced in the English regions and outside the M25 since 2003, which must be a good thing. We celebrate that fact that television is being made in parts of our country where it was not previously made. It brings us back to the business of embedding and hard-wiring diversity as a consequence of the decision. We do not want to lose out because of the attempt to make TV in Wales, Scotland and beyond. I recently met the BBC director of content, Charlotte Moore, and I gained a real sense of her commitment to the issue, which was one I really wanted to raise.
Let me raise again a point that others have made about the now very important position of Ofcom for the BBC. Ofcom’s chief executive, Sharon White, recently warned that the BBC is falling short on stories that reflect all the nations of the UK and their communities. Last year, Ofcom’s review of public service broadcasting found that over half of BAME viewers felt that they were under-represented in public service broadcasting. Ofcom is well aware of the issues, and it is now up to the new regulator to hold the BBC to account if it falls short on its promises. I hope that the Minister will be able to update us in his later remarks on how the Government plan to ensure that the provisions of the charter and agreement are acted on. It seems clear to me that the BBC must be required to publish full data on all elements of its diversity and equal opportunities policy and that Ofcom must analyse and evaluate the data to come to a judgment on progress made each year.
Another important point is whether the BBC’s targets, which are, after all, only an aspiration, should be combined with a minimum standard or benchmark. I hope that the Minister will confirm today that the Government will call on Ofcom to set the minimum standards for BBC diversity, in terms of both on-screen portrayal and off-screen employment.
We have made real progress on making this issue central in the charter, and I congratulate the Government on achieving that. Now is an important moment for our country, emphasised greatly by the social division that exists in Britain at this point in our history. We do not want to see ethnic minorities turning to first-language stations abroad. We need that national conversation, which must be complex and rich. Difficult though it sometimes is to achieve, a lot of people are paid quite a lot of money to get this right. Now is a time when we must get it right, so that I am not here in five years’ time having the same debate about ring-fencing, targeting and the BBC taking diversity seriously.
I am grateful for the chance to speak in this important debate, and I greatly welcome the publication of the draft charter. It is worth recalling that at various points during the run-up to the charter there was some debate about whether we would have to extend it in order to give us time to cover all the bases, as it were. It is great testament to the previous Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend Mr Whittingdale, whom I see in his place on the Back Benches, that since the election in May 2015 to today we have a draft charter before us. It is also great testament to him that, as we can see, he does not have two horns on his head and is not carrying a pitchfork. He is not here to consign the BBC to the depths of hell, nor did he intend to do so when he was Secretary of State.
I have absolutely no time for those who think that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon came to office with an agenda to bury the BBC, and that he was somehow seen off by the might of 38 Degrees and the effectiveness of Labour Front Benchers. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, my right hon. Friend is a great supporter of the BBC. He merely made the deeply obvious points that we were going through a charter review, and that the whole point of a charter review was to examine what the BBC does and whether it could be helped to do things better.
I used to joke that we could complete the charter review within 24 hours, but it took us slightly longer. However, as Members now know, the review does not shake the BBC to its core foundations, but makes some very welcome and long overdue changes. One of the biggest issues that we had to consider was whether the licence fee was sustainable, which was a perfectly rational issue to consider. I think it became pretty clear that the licence fee, like democracy, was the “least worst” of the options before us. Nevertheless, my right hon. Friend has given the BBC an opportunity to trial subscription services, and he was right to do so, because—as has already been mentioned—the BBC will face extraordinary competition, not from its terrestrial broadcast rivals but from the likes of Netflix, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Google. It is appropriate that, in a digital age, the BBC should start to consider how best to raise its income, and, indeed, how best to distribute its content.
Not many Members have mentioned radio. We forget too easily, when we talk about the Poldarks or Ed Balls on “Strictly”, that a major part of the BBC’s output is on the radio. BBC local radio is extremely important, particularly to us in the House. All those people who huff and puff and say “I wouldn’t pay my licence fee for this kind of nonsense” are only too happy to wake up to the “Today” programme and go to bed with the Radio 4 midnight news. The BBC does an outstanding job in radio, and it is important for it to continue to do so.
Let me say something about the subject of James Purnell. I do not have a problem with his being an old leftie; what I have a problem with is the fact that he does not seem to believe in digital radio. I am a passionate supporter of digital radio, but James thinks that everything must go on to the internet. My right-wing friends should really want him to be made director-general, because he would probably put the entire BBC online within 24 hours of being appointed. If James is watching the debate—online—I urge him to back digital radio, because I think that it will be the medium through which we listen to radio. It is at a tipping point, and we need the BBC as a very senior partner in it.
Let me also say, as part of the whole conspiracy theory debate, that I welcome my right hon. Friend’s decision to provide for a mid-term review of the charter. As I have said, given the current rapid technological changes, it will be very useful to see whether a subsequent Government can make changes that will help the BBC.
I want to touch on four key aspects of the whole charter debate. First, there is the issue of Ofcom regulation. That was part of the reason for my quip about how we could complete the charter review in 24 hours. It seemed to me that the biggest fundamental change on which everyone was agreed was the replacement of the BBC Trust by Ofcom regulation, because the trust clearly did not work.
I have particular praise for the Minister for Digital and Culture and, in her absence, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—and, indeed, the Prime Minister—because I think they were right to decide, when they came to office, that the chairman of the new BBC Board should be appointed through an open process. If I may echo the words of Maria Eagle, that is not a criticism of Rona Fairhead, but I think it was quite wrong that there was not an open process for the appointment of the chairman of an entirely new body, and I am pleased that there is to be such a process now. It is obvious that the BBC Board is completely independent. It always was independent even under the proposals made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon before the change of Government, but it is clearly even more independent now, for the benefit of the conspiracy theorists who think we are trying to take over the BBC.
I urge the Government to be as flexible as possible on the detail of how Ofcom goes about the task of regulating the BBC. I have no doubt at all that the chief executive of Ofcom, Sharon White, will do a superb job. Those of us who strongly believe in press freedom should watch out for a Trojan horse, however: if Ofcom is required to regulate the BBC, we will need to look carefully at how it regulates the BBC’s web content and print-like content. I do not want to see press regulation come in by the backdoor through Ofcom regulating what the BBC does online; I want Ofcom to regulate the BBC’s broadcast content—television and radio.
To my intense pleasure, a great deal of this debate has focused on diversity. I thank Mr Lammy for his very kind words about what I have done and return the favour, as I would to my hon. Friend Mrs Grant if she were in the Chamber, about the work they have done on diversity, along with many others. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon will confirm, not a meeting on the BBC went by without my banging on about diversity, and I am very pleased that it is one of the six purposes and that it is very prominent. I praise all the other campaigners outside on the work they have done, in particular Simon Albury from the Campaign for Broadcasting Equality.
We have made progress. I was talking to the playwright and theatre director Kwame Kwei-Armah when he came over a few weeks ago. A play he has produced, “One Night in Miami”, is now on in London. He said that, coming back after spending five years in Baltimore, he does see a change, but that is anecdotal and we must keep the pressure on to ensure we see greater diversity. We are not talking simply about black and minority ethnic diversity or gender equality; it is also very important to emphasise the greater diversity we need to see in the representation of people with disabilities, who are too often forgotten in this very important debate. We must make real progress on that.
We have reached a tipping-point, and the backlash has begun. We now see extraordinary newspaper headlines suggesting, for example, that the BBC is anti-white because it wants to promote diversity. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Even if there was not a moral case for diversity and equality, there should be an economic case for every broadcaster. As the right hon. Member for Tottenham indicated, broadcasters are losing audiences, catastrophically among the younger generation—those aged between 18 and 24, who are moving online. Those audiences will move to where the content appeals most to them. If they do not see people who look like themselves on the screen, or do not hear stories written and produced by people like themselves, they will turn off in their droves and go online to where that content exists. So there is an economic necessity, and we can make progress.
The right hon. Gentleman praised Channel 4. Considering the tone of so many of the debates we have about broadcasting, there is a great irony in the fact that it was actually Sky that was the pioneer. That great man Stuart Murphy—who has since left Sky, not under a cloud, I hasten to add, but because he wanted to write a novel—simply said, “These are the targets; we’re going to meet them,” and just got on with it. I am pleased to see the progress we have made on diversity but, as many Members have emphasised, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.
I have given my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon notice that I am going to give the competitive content fund a good kicking. I hope the new Minister will stamp his authority on the process of the charter review by ditching the fund. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon knows, I argued strongly against it behind closed doors and now, liberated on to the Back Benches, I can make my opposition to it public. It seemed to me neither fish nor fowl; it is too small to take on the BBC. It is perfectly valid to argue that having one public service gatekeeper is too few and we need two, but if that is the case we should take £500 million from the BBC—although I do not want to give the Minister any ideas—because £20 million is not enough; it is merely an irritant.
The competitive content fund would also in effect create what the critics of the BBC would see as a new bureaucracy producing content that nobody wanted to see. People have mentioned the importance of having diverse content and children’s content, and I want to see the BBC and all our public service broadcasters making that kind of content. I do not want to listen to a BBC executive in two or three years’ time saying that that is the job of the competitive content fund. I want that content to be on our main screens. We must not allow the fund to let broadcasters off the hook. I am a practical man, however, and if the Minister for Digital and Culture is intent on pursuing the competitive content fund I suggest he give it to the British Film Institute, which at least has experience in awarding public money for making brilliant British films and has a strong commitment to diversity.
I also want to comment on the movement of responsibility for the free licence fee for the over-75s to the BBC. The BBC has been raided on a number of occasions, and the arguments for those raids have varied in their strength. The raid by the last Labour Government to pay for the digital television switchover was potentially justified, because it was argued that the BBC should help to meet the cost of an infrastructure change that would benefit it.
One of the more worrying raids, or trades, involving the BBC taking on funding in return for having the licence fee involved the decision that it should no longer receive direct Government funding for that prized open-source intelligence asset, BBC Monitoring at Caversham. May I appeal, through my right hon. Friend, to the Secretary of State in her absence that no decision is taken to implement the current recommendation to close Caversham Park and radically reduce the funding for BBC Monitoring until the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committees have taken the opportunity to visit Caversham Park, which we have been invited to do by the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend Mr Wilson? This is a matter of the greatest concern. The reduction in funding was entirely to be anticipated, but it should not have occurred.
I have just been indulgent to my right hon. Friend because quite a few of my constituents work at Caversham and have been in touch with me to express their concerns. I thank him for his very welcome intervention and I echo his call. I hope that the Minister will pass on to his colleagues in the Foreign Office the need to note the sagacious views of my right hon. Friend and his colleagues on the Select Committee on the future of monitoring at Caversham and how it should be funded and analysed.
Returning to the other raids on the BBC, the digital infrastructure raid was perhaps appropriate. We then took the underspend and spent it on broadband. If the Minister is clever enough, as I know he is, not to proceed with the competitive content fund, we could put more of that money into broadband. I know that he has made incredibly rapid progress on the roll-out of broadband since he took up his present ministerial position, and I know that he will want to reach the new target of 100% by the end of next year. I thought I would just throw that in, because everyone said I was so useless at the job—[Hon. Members: “Aah!”] Thank you. This is turning into a pantomime, Madam Deputy Speaker—
I was about to say that I was going to get things back on track.
The second raid was undertaken by the then new Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend Mr Hunt, and me when we froze the licence fee in 2010. That moved the cost of the World Service on to the BBC’s books. Again, that was mildly justified in the sense that some operational savings could be made as a result. The Government have now started to fund the World Service separately.
The third raid related to TV licences for the over-75s, which we mitigated by taking some other costs off the BBC. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon, the man who was supposedly going to bury the BBC, actually secured from the Government an inflation-linked increase in the licence fee to counter the effect of that change.
The fundamental point is that they were raids. It is ironic that successive Governments, and indeed the BBC, have resisted a statutory basis for the BBC because that would undermine its independence. Without a statutory underpinning, however, how much money Ministers might take out of the licence fee is effectively down to their whim and how far they are prepared to bully the BBC. Over the past decade or so, too many Ministers, myself included, have seen the licence fee as a pot into which they can occasionally dip.
I do not propose a solution here, but as someone now liberated from collective responsibility I simply wanted to raise the matter and urge not necessarily the Government but the House to think hard over the coming years about how we protect the BBC. As so many Members have said in this debate, the BBC is a great treasure. It should be funded to get on with the job independently and should have light-touch regulation in order to adapt to the rapidly changing technologies that now dominate our lives.
The draft BBC charter gets pretty much everything right. I commend my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon, the former Secretary of State, and apologise for giving one or two of his pet projects a kicking. He did an absolutely superb job overall, particularly given the timetable. I must also praise his officials, mainly because they are glaring at me from the Box, and those who are not here, who also did an outstanding job in securing this draft charter. I commend the Minister for Digital and Culture and the new Secretary of State for the able way in which they have taken the draft charter forward.
There is plenty of time for the debate this afternoon, but the House will be aware that a great many people have indicated to the Chair that they would like to take part. If by self-denying ordinance every hon. Member behaves honourably and speaks for approximately 10 minutes, they will all have an equal chance of participating. If that does not work, I will have to impose a time limit.
I begin by saying that I chair the National Union of Journalists’ parliamentary group, the secretariat of which is included in my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. It is a great pleasure to follow Mr Vaizey, who was an extremely able and successful Minister at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, holding the post of arts Minister for a record six years. He demonstrated again this afternoon that with wit and charm he is able to defend some really poor policies.
The BBC is a first-class institution, but it is now at risk. As everybody knows, Lord Reith’s vision was to educate, inform and entertain free from political interference and commercial pressure. We now have a much weaker commitment to reflect the UK and its culture and values to the world. A large part of the draft agreement, which I thought was a strange document when I read it, between the Secretary of State and the BBC relates to the limitations that will be placed on the BBC’s independence and how it will fulfil its role in a competitive environment. We seem to be moving rapidly away from Lord Reith’s vision.
An early section of the draft agreement deals with the role of the BBC as a UK public service and the public interest test. The agreement states that the BBC must consider public value relative to
“any adverse impact on fair and effective competition”.
In other words, when the BBC makes changes to its delivery of the public services set out in the document, its first thought is the impact not on listeners, viewers or citizens, but on its competitors. That undermines the distinctive role of the BBC. When the Secretary of State was appointed, I thought that that was really positive and that we would have somebody in this role who had not spent years in the media milieu and would therefore bring a fresh approach. I was therefore extremely disappointed to discover that she had appointed as her special adviser the former chief political correspondent of The Sun. The obsession with the BBC’s impact on other broadcasters seems to suggest that the hand of Murdoch is evident in the document.
Let us look at some of the specifics in the agreement. Paragraph 67 is headed “Defence and Emergency Arrangements”, but it covers far more than just those things. Its provisions set out no limit to the Government’s power of censorship, and it is possible that the Government could interfere with editorial judgments and broadcasting content. Now let us look at the section on competition. Obviously, the BBC, supported by public money in the form of the licence fee, is in a special position and there are risks of it abusing that position. There was a long-standing argument about whether The Listener was competing unfairly with the New Statesman, The Economist and other weekly and monthly magazines, and now the argument is about whether the BBC’s web content is competing unfairly. What is strange about this charter, and this is where it goes wrong, is that there has been a move from the margins—from a small problem that was acknowledged and needed to be dealt with—to place the position of the competitor right at the centre of BBC decision making about what public services it needs to provide. The BBC will have to consider the positive and negative market impact of its activities, and Ofcom must keep that in mind when reviewing new and changed services. There must be concern that commercial broadcasters will be able to launch anti-competitive challenges against the BBC, including to existing programmes and scheduling.
The right hon. Member for Wantage talked about radio, and there is a particular concern about what is proposed for BBC radio. At the moment, the BBC contracts out to the private sector the production of 20% of radio programmes, but it is proposed that by 2022, at least 60% of BBC radio programmes will be contracted out. That is a massive change in how radio programmes are made, and I am concerned about it from two points of view. First, and most importantly, in what sense will we have BBC radio, with its characteristic and distinctive quality, if more than half of it is produced by the private sector? Secondly, there is the question of the practical feasibility of doing this. When more than half the radio programmes are made by external producers, the BBC’s in-house capacity will be limited. Members who are concerned about that matter might like to sign early-day motion 551.
The performance of the last BBC Trust seems to have been absolutely abysmal. I am sorry to say that that was due not to structures, but to the people who were in positions on the trust. It was completely irresponsible of them to take on responsibility for free licences for people over 75. I am pleased that the Prime Minister has insisted on an open appointment for the head of the new structure, but I do not think that the new unitary board, which includes five Government appointees, can truly be said to be independent.
The right hon. Member for Wantage pointed out that there had been a lot of top slicing. Since 2010, if we take account of the freeze on the licence fee and of the constant slicing away of money for different purposes, the BBC has experienced a real-terms cut of 25%, which is extremely significant.
I am pleased that the National Audit Office will be involved in looking at whether the BBC is properly managed, as it seems that its major problems are related to management, not editorial matters. I very much hope that that the growth in contracting out will not simply be a mechanism for people to evade scrutiny regarding high pay.
The Secretary of State began her speech by saying that the BBC is a trusted, valued and much-loved institution not just here in Britain, but across the world. I regret to say that those fine words do not seem to be supported with an approach on the charter that would preserve the BBC free from commercial pressure and political interference.
Many Members have expressed the view that the BBC is indeed one of our most beloved cultural institutions. Each of us will have fond memories of the TV shows that made us laugh and cry, and those that educated and inspired us. To this very day, some of the world’s most famous TV programmes call the BBC their home, or can at least trace their roots back to it. The BBC also has a proud record of supporting and cultivating some of Britain’s most treasured personalities and actors. With the BBC’s global reach, all this goes a significant way towards promoting our place in the world. It is perhaps the largest exporter of our cultural values, and it is viewed by hundreds of millions of people. Some might even say it is our best soft power asset. However, domestic and global habits continue to change, and for the BBC’s importance to be maintained, it needs to change with them.
Our BBC is not perfect, and it has long needed action to address governance issues and changing viewing habits. I was pleased that those issues were highlighted by all parties at the start of the 2015 negotiations. Now is the time to see them addressed and for solutions to be approved. Like many hon. Members, I have received a tremendous number of representations from constituents who are concerned about the BBC’s future. Given that our constituents pay a licence fee, our communities have a rightful stake in this institution. I am pleased that the new royal charter has been taken seriously and dealt with positively by the Government.
Under the draft agreement, I see a BBC that suits the modern broadcasting and digital environment that we know today. Much has been said about the new governance structure for the BBC. Since the publication of the White Paper, real progress has been made on the subject of appointments to the BBC board through discussion and consultation with the BBC. The fact that the BBC will appoint a large majority of its board members for the first time is indeed a positive measure that clearly maintains its independence.
It is right that all the nations that make up the United Kingdom are represented on the BBC board and that these individuals are subject to the public appointments process. It is also right that those appointments should not be subject to undue political influence. However, it is right, too, that the Government retain a role in appointing non-executive directors to the board of a body that spends £3.7 billion of public money each year. We are talking about huge sums that have to be justified. We cannot allow waste or a lack of openness when it is the public who have such a sizeable stake, yet with the expanded role of the National Audit Office and Ofcom as overseers of the BBC’s financial and content scrutiny arrangements, I am certain that we will maintain the credibility expected of our public service broadcaster.
The BBC is a huge part of our past, our present and our future. The new charter and agreement will enable improvements that will ultimately address the important issues of governance and modernisation while ensuring the BBC’s independence and enhancing the distinctiveness of its content. I am therefore pleased to support the motion and agreement, which will guarantee the BBC’s important place in our society for many years to come.
It is indeed a pleasure to follow Kelly Tolhurst. I recently bumped into her predecessor at the Welsh Assembly, of which he is a Member. I did not know that he had such strong links to Wales before becoming a Member of that institution, and neither I assume did the hon. Lady.
It would be remiss of me not to mention Mr Vaizey, who was one of the longest serving arts Ministers in this place. I was surprised that with his wealth of experience, he did not open the debate today. But if it does not work out for James Purnell at the BBC, Lord Hall might be on the phone to him very soon.
We heard two great campaign speeches from the hon. Members for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) and for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), both of whom are standing for Chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. I would not be cruel enough to make the analogy of Trump and Clinton, but I will say that whoever wins that race, the House will be well served.
Like the NHS, the welfare state and any other well-loved institution, the BBC is sometimes used by left and right as a political football. An observer might get the feeling that some politicians are just waiting for the BBC to slip up so that they can use it as a stick with which to beat it. Like any organisation in the public sector or the private sector, there are bound to be areas where the BBC will get it wrong. However, it is surely wrong in a free society that holds up the concept of freedom of the press that journalists such as Laura Keunssberg, who are simply doing their job of holding our political leaders to account, are booed and jeered at press conferences and subjected to vile abuse on social media. Equally, when some on the right say that the BBC has some sort of lefty bias, I like to remind them of the recent Ofcom report which threw out 71 complaints against the leader of the Labour party.
My message for those who may be new to the political scene, motivated by certain individuals, is that they have to learn the lesson that politics is a rough old trade and journalists who ask tough questions are simply doing their job. Besides, as my wife, Julia, who was once the head of public affairs at the BBC, has told me often enough, she believed that when both sides were screaming “Bias!” at one another, the BBC must surely be doing something right.
When we look around the world and see some of the state media, we should be particularly proud that the BBC is the home of impartiality. To me it is vital that the BBC retains its independence from Government, not purely from the perspective of freedom of the press, but from a cultural perspective. We are fortunate that in this country we do not have Fox News or some of the shock jocks that we find on the other side of the pond. It is important that we do not have a British version of Howard Stern or Sean Hannity, whose vile right-wing views are seen as legitimate political comment. We should take it as a compliment that that purveyor of press freedom, Rupert Murdoch, has called his own Sky News “BBC lite”.
Around the world, the BBC’s impartiality is looked on with envy. The BBC World Service has provided a window on the world for political prisoners such as Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. That is why the BBC should be encouraged and supported. For me, the central plank of any future charter and framework should be the protection of the BBC’s independence and impartiality. Equally, any agreement should ensure that the BBC is fighting fit, and not only for today’s world, but for the challenges of the future, because, as the decade since the last review has shown, emerging technologies and changing viewing habits can significantly alter the way the BBC is used and what services it provides.
We live in a world of rapid technological change. No one knows how we will view our entertainment in the coming years. It is therefore vital that the Government give the BBC the best possible chance to provide exceptional service. One area that has seen rapid technological change is radio. Far from the days of wireless, radio is now delivered on various platforms, from satellite to digital and internet. The market for radio is now beyond the old debate of FM or AM. The BBC is still the No. 1 go-to organisation for radio. Of the 48.7 million people who listen to radio every week, 35 million listen to Radio 1, Radio 2 or Radio 4.
The BBC also has a web of 40 local and eight regional stations, which combined attract 8.3 million listeners. BBC Radio Wales produces 7,000 hours of original output and more than 2,000 hours of news and current affairs programming. At a time when print media are in decline, it is still BBC Radio Wales that the nation tunes into for its news. My hon. Friend Ian C. Lucas said in an intervention that more of his constituents listen to Radio Stoke than to Radio Wales because the transmitter is closer. When we talk about Wales, we must realise that there is a divide between the north, the south and the west. I would like to see more localisation in Radio Wales’s output.
I share the BBC’s concerns about the proposal that it must have competitive tendering for at least 60% of total relevant broadcasting time for radio by
According to the National Union of Journalists, there is virtually no market in radio production. Already more than 95% of the total income of broadcast output of all independent radio production companies in the UK comes from the BBC. It is extremely difficult to see how the BBC could increase competitive tendering to 60% by 2022, given the apparent lack of companies to produce the content. Furthermore, the BBC is a world leader in radio production, with a clear focus on providing good public service. A rapid increase in competitive tendering, such as that set out in the draft agreement, could put that in jeopardy. It would be a real loss if the high quality of BBC in-house production was to suffer as a result.
Another dimension to consider is that BBC budgets are constrained. The process and time required to complete commissioning agreements under the draft charter would mean additional costs, meaning less money for content and, above all, talent.
In the light of all those concerns, the question that should be asked is this: why have the Government included that commitment in the draft agreement? Surely it would be in everyone’s interests if competitive tendering took place over a longer period of time, working with the BBC to come up with a timetable solution that works for everyone. There is simply no need for the Government to rush this.
In conclusion, the BBC is the crown jewel of broadcasting. It should be celebrated for its vital role in promoting Britain around the world. Britain’s international reputation for fairness, impartiality and justice is founded on the values that the BBC exports. The BBC has a huge appeal nationally and locally. The very idea of it not thriving is alien to the British people. Yet it should always bring good value for licence fee payers and it should be given a place to compete in a rapidly changing world. It should also be a place where programme makers can thrive. Done right, the draft charter and framework can ensure that the BBC continues to entertain and educate for years to come.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for your indulgence in calling me to speak. I had to step out of the Chamber for a time this afternoon to take part in a debate elsewhere about my constituency. There was no discourtesy meant to the House, so thank you for calling me.
It is a pleasure to follow Chris Evans. Like the hon. Gentleman’s wife, I was of the view when I was broadcasting on the BBC that if my manager received equal amounts of complaints about my broadcasting from both sides of politics, that was probably okay, and I was probably being about fair and equal. That was my personal experience.
I worked for the BBC in radio—for which I have the perfect face—for 20 years. For most of that time, I was in local radio, and I will come on to make some remarks specifically about local radio. As some Members have said, it is a vital part of what the BBC does, but we perhaps sometimes swamp it out of these debates.
I seek to be a critical friend of the BBC, if I can put it like that. I am in no doubt whatever that the BBC is the best broadcaster in the world, and I believe that having worked for the corporation for many years and being an ardent audience member for all the BBC’s output.
As an opening summary, I would say this: there is far more agreement between the Government and the BBC than some have perhaps sought to imply here. On the issue of the BBC paying for free licences for over-75s, the corporation has said that that is a good deal—it is one that it supports. On appointments to the new unitary board, the Government have listened. There is unanimity now between the Government and the corporation, and significant changes have been made following representations from the BBC. Overall, the BBC characterises the charter renewal and the licence agreement as follows:
“It will deliver the strong and creative BBC the public believes in.”
So there is significant agreement, and for that reason, let alone any others, we must support the motion and the charter renewal process.
My starting point when considering the BBC and the matters before us today has to be funding. I take a very clear line on this, and it is one that I have articulated in various debates. The corporation receives £3.7 billion of public money every year; that is a guaranteed and growing income. It is simply not credible to say that the BBC cannot afford to provide all the services it currently provides and to fund free TV licences for over-75s. Of course it can—especially given the additional £18 billion in income up to 2021 that this licence fee settlement, delivered by this Conservative Government, provides.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that when considering the services the BBC can afford to deliver, it should look more often, for example, at some of the large sporting events, to which it often sends hundreds of reporters when a much smaller number would do?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I will come later to some of the ways the BBC should, and indeed should not, be saving money. It is an internal decision-making process for the BBC.
That £3.7 billion is a very large amount, by any measure. It is more than the budget of several Departments. Imagine the outcry if a Department decided it was not going to be open and transparent about the way it spends taxpayers’ money. Quite rightly, that is something up with which we would not put. Yet, still, the BBC seeks to argue that it should not disclose how much public money it pays its top talent. Of course it should. In 2014, 91 BBC directors were paid more than the Prime Minister, and 39 on-air staff were paid more than a quarter of a million pounds a year.
I do not buy the argument that by revealing those individual salaries the BBC would somehow risk losing its stars to the competition. That does not stack up, because in many cases there are no other outlets that would require, want, or have the means to poach those stars. For instance, no other national radio station exists that would consider employing some of the highest-paid talent on Radio 1 or Radio 2. The BBC has to be more open and transparent about how it spends its money, because it is not the BBC’s money—it is the licence fee payer’s money. I therefore support the Government in seeking to build this into the charter.
Radio is the area of the BBC that I know best—specifically, local radio. I worked for the BBC for 20 years, for the majority of that time in local radio. BBC Radio Devon, serving my constituency, is a fine example of BBC local radio at its best. Local radio, in general, is an underfunded service within an underfunded directorate of the BBC—that of regional broadcasting. For about 6% of the licence fee, the English regions directorate produces about 52% of all BBC output. In other words, it is an incredibly efficient service. That includes daily regional TV news in 12 regions, including “Spotlight” in the south-west, weekly current affairs and politics shows in 11 regions, 39 local radio stations and 42 local websites.
By any measure, that amount of output for that relatively small slice of the BBC’s budget must represent value for money. Yet time and again regional services, and local radio in particular, are singled out by BBC managers for cuts. Perhaps we could understand why if we merely looked at figures on a spreadsheet. The BBC is fond of looking at a figure of cost per listener per hour. Seen purely in those terms, it does seem as though local radio is a relatively expensive service for the BBC to provide. There is a reason for that—it comprises 39 different stations, each a stand-alone operation with its own costs, buildings and overheads. It is entirely unfair, however, to look at it like that and think that the solution is therefore to reduce the hours of local broadcasting that a station provides, to combine stations or to replace truly local programmes with regional or even national shows.
A programme that I once presented has fallen victim to that and no longer exists as a stand-alone local breakfast programme. Members can decide for themselves whether that is to do with the fact that I once presented it, but it is not—it is to do with somebody looking at a line on a spreadsheet and saying, “We can save money by cutting this.” The effect is to take away from our constituents what should be a good local service of news, current affairs and journalism. The BBC should not be doing this. The solution is not to combine stations and replace truly local programmes with regional or even national shows; it is to fund local radio fairly in the first place. The BBC has internally the power and the funding necessary to make that decision.
Local radio fits perfectly into the new requirement for distinctiveness built into the charter by the Government. No other organisation is providing local radio services anything like those provided by the BBC. Commercial radio stations provide nothing close to the news, current affairs and local journalism that BBC local radio provides. Before I entered the BBC, I worked for commercial radio—30 years ago, believe it or not. [Interruption.] I know—it is hard to believe, but true. I started very young. In those days, commercial radio had something approaching a proper newsroom in each of its local stations, but not any more. Now commercial radio has perhaps a regional newsroom with a very small number of journalists providing news and current affairs across a very wide area. No other organisation is doing what the BBC is doing in local radio. The director-general has said that he wants the BBC’s feet held firmly to the fire on distinctiveness. The place to start is to look at local radio and to acknowledge the distinctive service of local journalism that it provides.
I have two brief points to make in conclusion; I am aware of your strictures on time, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Government have got it absolutely right in making Ofcom the BBC’s external regulator. In my view, having worked for the BBC for all those years, it was always complete nonsense that one body—either the governors or, more recently, the trust—was responsible for both the regulation and the governance of the BBC. That was a classic case of being both poacher and gamekeeper —or both dancer and judge, to use the euphemism du jour—at the same time. The new arrangements are fairer and more transparent.
I end as I began by saying that I love the BBC. It is the best broadcasting organisation in the world, second to none. This Conservative Government also love the BBC. All the nonsense that we heard on certain awards nights and in certain letters to certain papers that this Government sought to in some way hang the BBC out to dry was, to be frank, fiction worthy of one of the drama programmes that the BBC is so good at producing. The BBC is an organisation of which we can be proud. The Government fully support it, as do I, both as a former employee and now as an avid listener and viewer. I commend the licence fee settlement and the charter renewal to the House.
It is a pleasure to follow Peter Heaton-Jones and to put on the record that I have no professional connections whatsoever with the BBC.
The BBC enjoys a position of unique importance in Wales, with Welsh audiences consuming, for want of a better word, a greater proportion of BBC services than those in the other nations and regions of the UK. The “general impression” of the BBC among audiences—that is rather weak terminology, but it is a measure used by the BBC to gauge people’s appreciation of it—is higher in Wales than in any other of the UK’s three nations.
Between 2006 and 2015, BBC Cymru Wales’s spend on English-language TV output was reduced from £24.6 million to £20.8 million—a reduction of about 30% in real terms. In the face of weak media plurality, the BBC has an important role to play in Wales. The situation as it stands is, according to Ofcom,
“in stark contrast to Scotland and Northern Ireland”.
The extreme reduction in funding has led to a situation where many stakeholders in Wales are concerned about the lack of a distinctly Welsh portrayal in BBC programming.
To counter the deficit of distinctly Welsh content, the Welsh Affairs Committee’s inquiry into broadcasting in Wales concluded that the BBC should allocate
“investment from its current Budget for English language programming in Wales closer to the levels seen in 2006/07.”
Green Bay Media’s Dr John Geraint stated that English-language television in Wales has been
“eroded to such an extent that it no longer represents the rounded life of the nation”.
The BBC’s current failures to adequately reflect the political divergence in devolution across the United Kingdom have undoubtedly contributed to widespread misinformation about which Government and which Parliament is responsible for what. It is no wonder that fewer than half the Welsh population are aware that it is the Labour Welsh Government who run the Welsh NHS, not the Tories in Westminster, as revealed by a YouGov poll in 2014.
Welsh public life is, naturally, very different from that of the other UK countries, and as a public service broadcaster, the BBC must recognise, respect and reflect those differences in its output. The UK Government’s new BBC charter provided an opportunity for the broadcaster to modernise and to adapt to adequately address the differences in need across the United Kingdom.
I am pleased that the unitary board will include a permanent member from Wales, although it is somewhat worrying that they will be appointed by the Government, potentially introducing political influence to the BBC’s board. I also welcome the BBC’s greater answerability to the National Assembly for Wales, although Plaid Cymru will, of course, continue to call for the devolution of broadcasting.
It is important that the BBC is adequately held to account over its service to Welsh audiences. The Wales representative on the board should refer to a sub-committee in Wales; alternatively, the role of audience councils should be maintained. It is crucial that the broadcaster’s external regulator, Ofcom, has permanent Welsh representation on its board to carry out this role. We warmly welcome the amendment calling for a distinctly Scottish news programme. The English-language equivalent is needed in Wales to allow devolution to flourish and to allow the public to make informed democratic decisions. News about both Wales and the world at large should be seen through a Welsh lens. As a nation, we deserve and need better than to be a five-minute postscript to the world according to England.
Despite the fact that Wales secured 7.8% of UK BBC network television spend in 2014—greater than its 4.9% share of the population—the Assembly’s Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee inquiry noted that, although an increasing number of network productions are being made in Wales, the big commissioning decisions continue to be made in London. The result is that an implicit London-centric bias prevents BBC executives from commissioning network programmes that deal with and distinctly reflect Welsh issues. The Welsh Affairs Committee recommended that the charter make explicit the BBC’s duty to reflect the whole UK in its services by having a non-news genre commissioning editor based in each UK nation.
The hon. Lady is making an interesting speech. I want to focus on promoting the Welsh language. Does she agree that we have something to learn from our Scandinavian cousins, who have promoted their own language by selling programmes such as “The Killing” and “Wallander”? Does she think that there should be an emphasis on Welsh programmes being exported to the main channels with subtitles?
Order. I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but we in the Chamber have no idea what he has said, because he is addressing the hon. Lady instead of addressing the Chair. I will give him another go at it.
I would indeed agree. A Scandinavian-influenced genre noir, “Hinterland”—“Y Gwyll”—has been successfully sold. Another issue that I want to touch on in relation to minority language is the great significance of iPlayer in presenting Welsh-medium and S4C productions to a wider audience. It is essential that minority languages, such as Welsh, have a strong digital presence as we move further into the 21st century.
To return to what I was saying, the Assembly’s Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee felt that the BBC should decentralise its commissioning arrangements, so that more big decisions are made in Wales, and that was reiterated by the Welsh Affairs Committee. Another way to tackle the lack of distinctly Welsh content, as the BBC director-general has proposed, is to create separate service licences for each of the nations. The Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee stated that doing so
“would enable BBC Cymru Wales to better prioritise funding to meet its own priorities and obligations.”
That, too, was supported by the Welsh Affairs Committee, which concluded that a national service licence should be introduced for Wales to allow for greater flexibility and accountability for the BBC in Wales.
I welcome the review that is being undertaken by the UK Government into the governance and funding of S4C. The future of S4C’s funding has been under threat in recent years with the reductions in its funding deemed to be “both severe and disproportionate”. It is regrettable that the review will not be published until next year. I would be extremely interested to hear how the UK Government intend to incorporate the recommendations of the S4C review into the renewed charter.
In the absence of media plurality in Wales, the BBC has a duty to inform our citizens. The final BBC charter must reflect the unique needs of Welsh citizens and respect its renewed promise to
“reflect, represent and serve the diverse communities of all of the United Kingdom’s nations”.
We have heard hon. Members on both sides of the House talk about the BBC being the premier broadcaster of the world, and indeed it is. I have experienced that myself, having lived in the United States, when the BBC and its news service were my umbilical cord to the United Kingdom. While I was subjected to the unpleasantness of Fox News and other very subjective news broadcasters, the BBC was the only objective broadcaster giving me the news as it was.
The amendment is false because its words seek to give hon. Members the impression that it is about furthering devolution. It is about nothing of the sort; it is about a party hell-bent on destroying the sovereign United Kingdom, using any tool as its means of doing so. Tonight’s tool is amendment (a), which purports to speak for the people of Scotland, but all the SNP wants it to do is to drive a wedge between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
John Nicolson said that Scotland is frustrated. No, SNP Members are frustrated at the position. A YouGov poll earlier this year stated very clearly that 63% of Scots want the BBC’s news output to continue as it is, with a main UK national evening broadcast, followed by a Scottish broadcast such as “Reporting Scotland”.
Will the hon. Gentleman explain why the dangerous separatists on his Benches were all in agreement about the idea of a separate Scottish Six? Were they just bamboozled by my eloquence?
The Government Members who support the Scottish Six have never fought the SNP. I will be speaking to those hon. Members to explain very clearly its policy, because SNP Members will do anything to bring about the end of the United Kingdom. That is what the amendment is all about. It is just another example of chip-chipping away at a great British institution.
Hon. Members have said that there is great talent in Scotland, and indeed there is: there is great journalistic talent across the United Kingdom. In the BBC, some Scottish journalists make it on to the UK stage. Some great Scottish journalists are able to promote objective news programmes across our kingdom. Let me say very clearly that the Scots want to know exactly what is going on across the United Kingdom. Given that England is the larger partner in the United Kingdom, simply by sheer numbers, it is imperative that Scots are able to see the good work the Conservative Government are doing in other parts of the United Kingdom.
For the avoidance of doubt, let me compare and contrast that, because SNP Members cannot have it both ways. Since their election last year, they have changed their policy and they now talk about torpedoing policies brought in by the UK Government that affect England only or England and Wales only. May I give an example? The SNP education spokeswomen, Carol Monaghan, whom I emailed earlier today, was reported to have said by the Evening Standard just a few days ago:
“If schools across England set pay scales lower than the agreed national scales, that would mean an education budget across the piste would be lower, and there are Barnett consequentials for us.”
They keep talking about poking their noses into England-only matters because of Barnett consequentials, but, on their own logic, it is imperative that the people of Scotland see exactly what is going on in England so that they can hold their SNP representatives to account.
The hon. Gentleman seems to be labouring under the apprehension or impression that the Scottish Six will no longer include news from the rest of the UK. I can inform him that that is incorrect. It is a total news programme, so it has local, national and international news within the same programme. His fears can therefore be laid to rest.
The arrogance of SNP Members knows no end. They say that there is editorial independence, but now they are telling us exactly what this Scottish Six will contain. It is a farce of tragic proportions. The truth is that the people of England, including my constituents, should know about the SNP’s terrible record. As I said earlier, perhaps we should encourage—not compel—more news to come out of Scotland so that UK citizens, including the constituents of Members on both sides of the House, can hear about the terrible record of the SNP Government. For example, on higher education, fewer disadvantaged students go on to higher education in Scotland than in England. I think my constituents would like to know that.
I remind the hon. Gentleman that we have free tuition fees in Scotland, so the constituents he is talking about will be lumbered with tens of thousands of pounds of debt, whereas they would not be in Scotland. We are comfortable with that position.
The hon. Gentleman may be comfortable, but the higher education institutes of Scotland are not comfortable, and it is imperative that we hear that across the United Kingdom. Why are there fewer disadvantaged students going on to higher education in Scotland than in England? It is because of the SNP’s appalling track record.
Let us take the NHS too—it is important that the BBC broadcasts this in England. The SNP has NHS targets in Scotland that are constantly not met. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire talked about BBC Scotland failing to meet targets: I suggest he look at the SNP Government and their failure to meet targets. That is important news that is worthy of being broadcast across the United Kingdom.
The amendment is yet another attempt by separatist MPs—virtually every separatist Member from Scotland has signed it—to chip away at a great British institution. Some of my hon. Friends may, perhaps unwittingly, have fallen foul of the SNP’s propaganda that pretends that the amendment would somehow further devolution, but it would only bring about the hopes and dreams of the separatist party for an end to the United Kingdom. Given that we have a Conservative and Unionist Government, I would hope that all hon. Members want assiduously to defend and protect the Union. While I fully support the Government and their successful agreement with the BBC, I strongly encourage all hon. Members thoroughly to reject the separatist amendment, which does nothing but attempt to destroy the British Broadcasting Corporation.
It is always a pleasure to follow Alberto Costa, if only for the comedy value.
During the somewhat meandering and enervating discussion that passed for a debate on the future of the BBC over the past few months, I became more and more convinced that very few people actually care about the principles involved, and it has become another venue for an argument rather than a consideration of the future of public service broadcasting. At times, the Government and the loyal Opposition seem more interested in striking positions to reflect what they think people are thinking on the Clapham omnibus or in the Biddulph Conservative club.
A funding deal was done behind closed doors and the Opposition hardly blinked at the time. I suppose they thought that it might be their turn to do the deal one day. I am delighted that they have finally found their voice on this issue.
These things should all be out in public, as maybe then we would not have had the stramash about how huge a BBC salary has to be before the BBC makes it public. Maybe then the BBC and the Government could have had the discussions with Equity about the data protection implications of that decision. It would also have been good to have had a public discussion about whether a public service broadcaster should be privatising, in effect, 60% of its radio output, as mentioned by Helen Goodman.
The SNP is in favour of high-quality public broadcasting serving the people, and I had hoped that I would find kindred spirits and attitudes on the Benches here. But the BBC, the Government and the loyal Opposition occupy the same space in the heart of the establishment, and their self-referencing conversations are equally self-reinforcing and therefore damaging to the political discourse that should be informed by the BBC’s work.
There is a fond suspension of disbelief in the UK that allows the public to imagine that the BBC is impartial and in service to all of us. It is a comfortable fiction, but it masks a fatal flaw in the set-up of our state broadcaster. I find the BBC’s attitude overpoweringly London-centric, begging towards coorying into the establishment rather than serving the whole of its audience. It reminds me of a fantastic piece by the novelist James Robertson called, “The News Where You Are”. The hon. Member for South Leicestershire might enjoy it. In 365 words, he scores and underscores the perception many of us have in Scotland of the way the BBC views us: the important news is what we tell you it is from our studios in London, and when the important news is all over you can have the news where you are, which is less important, unless we say it is important, in which case we will report it. Mr Robertson does a fantastic reading on YouTube and I urge everyone to listen to it. I am sure the sentiments have echoes elsewhere. There will be similar feelings in Cornwall, Yorkshire, Cumbria and Wales.
The BBC has to modernise not its broadcasting platforms, not the media it uses and not its founding ideals but the attitude to those it is supposed to serve outwith the M25. A little less of the patronising would be good: stop thinking it knows best and start learning to serve. The parallel complaint can be levelled against BBC Scotland: stop kowtowing to London as if Broadcasting House holds the great sages of the modern era. Get up and make decent programmes, including a properly resourced Scottish Six, and shout out loud if you are being underfunded.
I am somewhat troubled by the hon. Lady’s position. On the one hand, she says that the BBC thinks it knows best. On the other hand, she is making the point that Scottish National party Members know best. Surely the BBC is in a better place to decide objectively on where to focus, rather than individual Members in this place who, when it comes down to it, are all very parochial?
I suggest that we are all here as critical friends of the BBC and I make those comments in that spirit.
BBC Scotland should shout out loud if it is being underfunded. We know that the entire budget for all of BBC Scotland radio and television is outstripped by the budget for Radio 4 alone. As my hon. Friend John Nicolson mentioned, BBC Scotland gaining control of the money raised in Scotland from the licence fee could see an additional £100 million a year invested in Scotland’s creative sector, supporting 1,500 full-time equivalent jobs and boosting the economy. The more important aspect is that Scottish programming should be Scottish, not only reflecting Scotland but reporting the world through a Scottish vision.
I think that that was based on the suggestion of a pilot along the lines of the current “Reporting Scotland” news programme, and audiences have not yet seen the pilots going on at the moment.
I have some sympathy with the hon. Lady’s argument about the BBC being extraordinarily London-centric. In the midlands, probably one of the worst-served areas, the BBC licence fee spend is £12.40 per head versus £757 in London.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that information. I was not aware of that, but the midlands should make its views known to London. I look forward to his contribution later on in the debate. I am sure that that will be mentioned.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire mentioned MG Alba. Under the previous Chancellor, MG Alba had its central funding cut. Obviously, saving that £1 million was what was needed to turn the deficit around, rather than the billions spent on Trident. It is time that MG Alba was placed on the same footing and the same funding as S4C. Give the Gaels their Government funding and a fair share of the licence fees, too. In short, it is time to hand over the cash. So raise up your voices, BBC Scotland, and shout out any inequality, injustice or bad deal. The Scottish Six has to be an outstanding success, free of London control and the dead hand of Broadcasting House. The BBC has to do that, and do it well, to start restoring its credibility in Scotland. This will be only the beginning.
It is good to see that there has been some movement towards including the devolved Administrations in decisions about the future of the BBC, but it has to go further, and more of the BBC has to be devolved so that the good programmes that are being made can be built upon. Scottish programming has to reflect Scotland back to itself—not just have programmes made in Scotland that could just as easily be made anywhere else. No more “Waterloo Road” farces! Scottish programme makers have shown themselves time and again capable of making high-quality content. They do not need London rejects to bulk it up.
More than implementing governance changes, BBC Scotland has to clear out the dead wood from its own backyard: away with the tired and safe presenting styles on radio and television; away with the centralised styles of the BBC’s news reporting; and away with those executives who have outlived their imaginative years. BBC Scotland should have editorial and financial independence, and exercise it ruthlessly. No more lift and shift, and no more forelock tugging: shed the self-effacement and timidity, and start to create a broadcasting corporation that does not engage the people just in phone-ins or vox pops, but engages them in interest, intellect and thought. It should raise those ideals as concepts to which people can cleave.
This charter renewal means nothing more than previous renewals, and future renewals will mean nothing more than this one so long as there is little imagination and no new thought in the continuous plod of the BBC. It seems that we have come to this point with no forethought from Government or broadcaster about what it is they actually want the BBC to do. The cut in Foreign Office grant affected the World Service in the early days of the first Cameron Government, cutting into that soft diplomacy mission— the famous nation speaking peace unto nation. As the licence fees costs for people over 75 fall on to the BBC’s shoulders, we will see more pressure to cut, cut and cut again.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern at the tendency of the Foreign Office to start classifying some of the money it spends on the World Service as “overseas development assistance”, which is diverting the money from what it should be spent on—poverty reduction?
I absolutely do, and I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution about an alarming development.
In the midst of this austerity-inspired orgy of cuts, no one appears to be saying that there is a plan for the BBC that does not involve using it as a political football—and, unfortunately, no one at the BBC is speaking up.
Talking of political footballs.
The charter can be renewed as often as is convenient; the management structures of the BBC can be tinkered into powerlessness; the output can be eternally criticised, praised, held up as world-leading, condemned as not fit for purpose, mocked, exalted or switched off. Nothing is beyond the imagination of politicians looking for something to say. Until there is a serious engagement about what the corporation should be doing, however, it will continue to drift on a current whose direction was set nearly a century ago in a broadcasting landscape bearing no resemblance to today’s landscape.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I had just one sentence to complete my speech.
It has been buffeted by winds and blown about a bit over those 100 years, but whose hand is on the tiller, and who guides or seeks to guide the BBC’s long-term direction?
I am not sure that I can compete with that exciting exchange, but it is an honour to follow Deidre Brock.
I start by congratulating the dozens of bodies and institutions, and the 190,000-plus members of the British public, who participated in the consultation that has led to a very successful outcome in the form of the draft charter. The scale of that involvement clearly shows how close the BBC is to the hearts of many people in the United Kingdom. Let me also give credit where it is due—to the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend Mr Whittingdale, for all the work and effort that he and his team put into drafting the charter; and to the current team for pursuing the process and ensuring that it reached this very successful point.
It is true that the BBC itself supports the vast majority of the charter and is now quibbling over relatively small points, including about the revelation of on-screen talent pay, which I shall come to in a moment. The most important change, in my view, involves governance and independence. The BBC Trust was clearly not fit for purpose, and the new unitary board will be a far more effective oversight body, alongside Ofcom. For the first time in its history, the BBC will itself appoint the majority of members to its board, and the Government will therefore not be able to outvote the BBC. That is a fundamental point.
The Culture, Media and Sport Committee, of which I have the honour of being a member, will have a role in the appointment of the chair of the unitary board, and there will, of course, be consultation with the Governments of the nations on the other public appointments. There will be a thorough public appointments process; the idea that there will be Government stooges in those roles is completely false and fabricated, and simply does not stack up with the facts.
Ofcom will play a significantly enhanced role. I am a member of the Public Bill Committee that is considering the Digital Economy Bill, and I was pleased when a representative of Ofcom came along last week and reassured us that it had the necessary skills and experience to take on that additional role. Where Ofcom needs to hire, it is currently in the process of hiring, so I am confident that it will be able to fulfil its role with great skill. I also applaud the expanded role of the National Audit Office. Notwithstanding comments to the contrary, the NAO has skills and experience in the handling of commercial elements of contracts, and it is more than capable of auditing the operations of BBC Worldwide.
The issue of talent salaries has received a fair amount of attention, but I do not think that many of my constituents are losing sleep over it. It is proposed that the BBC should reveal talent salaries of more than £150,000 a year, which is roughly what the Prime Minister is paid. That threshold for revealing salaries is standard practice in the rest of the public sector, and, indeed, in the BBC itself. BBC management salaries of more than £150,000 are already revealed, and, of course, management is also talent, although it is not on-air talent. It seems logical to extend the process to on-air talent. The argument that the BBC would be damaged if salaries were revealed does not hold water; if that were the case, it would already be vigorously losing talent on the management side.
As John Nicolson has observed on many occasions, this is a rather gossipy industry. Most people in the industry—the agents and so on—already know who is paid what. About the only people who do not know what the “top talent” are paid are those who are doing the paying: us, the licence fee payers. It is about time that we corrected that. If the talent really are worth as much as they are being paid, they should have nothing to hide from or fear.
We need only look at what our top pop stars, film stars and sporting stars are being paid to realise that the British public are quite tolerant of what many would consider to be exorbitant salaries, as long as the people concerned give pleasure to millions and are talented, and are therefore perceived as being worth it. The BBC need not worry about revealing talent salaries if they are seen to be in keeping with market rates. Indeed, Claudia Winkleman has already declared that she considers herself to be working for the public and does not mind that her salary will be revealed. I hope that, when salaries are revealed by the BBC, a gender pay gap is not revealed at the same time. I hope that the very revelation of salaries may deal with existing pay scales that are rather unnecessary and abhorrent.
Let me end by mentioning the Scottish Six—to the upset, I fear, of my hon. Friend Alberto Costa. As a member of the Select Committee, and following multiple conversations, I am sympathetic to the arguments in favour of a Scottish Six. If I were watching the news in England and the top three items were a Scottish health story, a Scottish education story and a Scottish legal system story, I might be a bit bored and turn it off. It is not that I am uninterested in such matters; it is just that I would not want them to be the top news items. However, although I do indeed have great sympathy with the arguments for a Scottish Six, I disagree with my friends on the SNP Benches, because they are asking the Government to interfere. This is a dangerous area. There are areas in which the BBC does itself have to make editorial and operational decisions, and this is one of them. It is up to us to make sure that we put pressure on the BBC, make the arguments and monitor its behaviour on this—and, indeed, on other areas of spend, such as the regions and the midlands versus London. I do not, however, believe it is right for Parliament to get into such detail and force these decisions, although I am keen to continue to monitor the situation and argue the case for a Scottish Six along with my friends on the SNP Benches.
This has been an interesting debate. We have heard a wide range of speeches praising the BBC, and I also come here to add my pennyworth of praise: I think that the BBC is an excellent institution. I have been in the privileged position of presenting a programme on the BBC, and I have rarely met a bunch of more professional, accommodating and friendly people than those who worked on the programme I had the honour of presenting.
I repeat a point that my right hon. Friend Mr Whittingdale, the former Secretary of State, made about the future of the BBC and technology. It is obvious to most people in this country that we will live through a vast range of changes. There will be a vast acceleration in the ability of technology to provide programmes and changes to how people access programmes. The only thing I would say about the charter in relation to this is that it covers quite a long period. Other Members have claimed that a health check after five and a half years will be deleterious to the functioning of the BBC—that it is some sort of plot to try to change the nature of the BBC. However, if the charter lasts for 11 years, surely it makes sense to have some form of break clause or health check after five and a half years, because none of us have any idea of where we will be in terms of technology and how we access material on screen in five and a half years’ time.
My right hon. Friend said the licence fee would be looked at. I think the licence fee is little more than a poll tax. It is fairly controversial in this day and age—this is a matter for legitimate debate—to expect David Beckham to pay exactly the same as someone in much more limited circumstances just for the privilege of accessing the BBC. It is interesting that the charter will extend the licence fee, but at the end of this period, it might well be looked at and reformed. In some instances, subscription services clearly represent a more attractive approach.
We recently debated diversity on the Floor of the House and Mr Lammy has spoken eloquently about it. Pious words are very easy and cheap. Progress has been made, but it is difficult to measure it. Other speakers have said they think the BBC’s feet should be held to the fire on diversity. I am not just talking about ethnic or gender diversity, because we must look at regional diversity, as has been mentioned, and the balance in representation on screen between able-bodied and disabled people. There is a long way to go on this, and the BBC itself is perhaps not the best judge of how it is performing. The right hon. Gentleman said there had been about 30 diversity initiatives in the last 17 years, yet nobody says that there has been any inquiry into what has actually been achieved; there is just a general notion that the BBC has improved. I do not dispute the fact that improvements have been made, but there does not seem to be any way of measuring them, so that is something that Ministers, the BBC and others should consider.
I also want to touch briefly on the question of value for money. The BBC has £3.7 billion a year. That is a lot of money—it is a big organisation—and it is perfectly legitimate for Members on both sides of the House to look at its expenditure and rigorously question whether the public are getting value for money. When I hear Scottish National party Members complaining about an “orgy of cuts”, I tend to get slightly irritated. The BBC has not suffered an “orgy of cuts”. In fact, when we look at Government spending over the past six years, I and others see the BBC as something of a pampered child. It has been exempt from some of the difficult choices that we have made.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the language being used is just another example of the separatists trying to drive a wedge between the Scots and the English—or, in this case, the London media?
I appreciate my hon. Friend’s concern about separatist language, although I do not really see it in those terms. I have heard this Father Christmas approach to public spending many times. I have always argued against it; it is not a mature approach to the difficult choices that we have to make. Complaining about an “orgy of cuts” is not a helpful or accurate way of talking about the Government’s approach to the BBC. It is perfectly legitimate for Members of Parliament to look rigorously at public expenditure and at an organisation that enjoys lavish expenditure and receives large sums from the taxpayer. It is legitimate for us to examine that expenditure and to expect a degree of savings.
In my six years in the House, I have always argued against a Father Christmas approach that involves constant public spending and protesting about orgies of cuts or austerity, which, in this instance, is not even happening at the BBC. Indeed, given where we were during the previous Parliament, I think the Government have been rather generous in their treatment of the BBC, as well they might be. It is a cherished and well-respected national organisation, and there is nothing in the charter to suggest that the Government’s approach will be any more rigorous or challenging towards the BBC’s expenditure than was the case in the previous Parliament.
The BBC is well protected, and the charter is to be commended for some of the reforms that it introduces, including new roles for the National Audit Office and Ofcom. Those represent improvements in the governance of the BBC. In the round, the charter has most things right, as my right hon. Friend Mr Vaizey said. It has the potential to be successful, and I am very happy to lend it and the Government’s approach to the BBC my support.
It is an absolute pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Kwasi Kwarteng. He is rarely off the TV, and he is a fine contributor to the BBC. Whenever I turn on the TV, he seems to be there making his contribution. I hope that, notwithstanding some of the criticism, his chair on “Newsnight” will not be replaced by the one that Graham Norton uses when he ejects an unfortunate audience member.
I should like to declare an interest, in that I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the BBC. I am very proud to hold that position. I welcome the new BBC charter and the compromises made by the Government and the BBC to ensure its delivery. I particularly welcome the charter’s 11-year duration, which should, provided that fixed Parliaments survive, take the next renewal out of the election cycle. I have long found it unfortunate that the BBC gets accused of bias from all sides during elections or referendums. While pressure coming from both sides must demonstrate that the BBC is balanced, calmer mid-term waters will be a better starting point for the next charter renewal. I find politicians’ accusations of bias tiresome and that is followed in my list of moans by demands that the BBC find its own voice, with the proviso that the lyrics and music are written by interested Members of this House— I ask the SNP to take note.
I am pleased that the licence fee is guaranteed for the next 11 years, rising in line with inflation each year, that the Government have legislated to close the iPlayer loophole and that they will phase out the ring-fencing of £150 million a year for broadband roll-out.
The BBC took a big hit when it was determined that it should be responsible for free TV licences for the over-75s. The BBC is much loved and cherished by the nation, but its reputation is only as good as the output that it can deliver. The licence fee and the BBC’s commercial enterprises provide the BBC with 25% of the UK’s TV revenues, but it accounts for 45% of investment into original British programmes. I hope that the Government’s additional funding commitments will help the BBC to deliver more excellence to its viewers and listeners.
I have three particular issues on which I hope the Government will focus their efforts following publication of the charter. The first relates to listed sporting events. By closing the iPlayer loophole, which previously allowed viewers to watch content without having to buy a TV licence, the Government have demonstrated that existing legislation has to change in order to capture the original intention in a fast-moving digital age. I ask the Government to consider making the same change to preserve the status of listed sporting events.
The BBC currently interprets a listed sporting event as one that is available only to a broadcaster that will air free of charge and that can be delivered via TV to 95% of the population. With more consumers opting to watch programmes on tablets and other devices, soon no terrestrial broadcaster will be able to reach that figure. I believe that the intention is merely that the output should be free and that the nation can access it. As I understand it, the Government have no plans to change the sporting listed status regime, but I have invited the Secretary of State to meet me to discuss how the legislation can be updated to account for the technology of our age. I was incredibly grateful to have shared a few words with the Secretary of State this afternoon and it appears that her view is that the rules do not restrict the BBC in the way that it thinks they do. Equally, the Department’s view is that if it turns out that the drafting does restrict the BBC, it is open to considering a change. I am grateful to the ministerial team for being so open —I am sure the BBC will think the same.
My second point relates to the National Audit Office. Paragraph 55 of the draft agreement provides that the Comptroller and Auditor General can scrutinise the BBC. I welcome that, but there are two minor areas that may need further consideration. The first relates to which aspects of the BBC can be examined by the NAO. Paragraph 55(1) states that the BBC is to be examined. However, paragraph 55(2) specifies that the BBC’s subsidiaries must also engage with the NAO to that end. I assume that means that the NAO will be examining the BBC’s commercial activities. The NAO is supposed to scrutinise whether bodies have used public money efficiently, but the BBC’s commercial subsidiaries do not, and legally cannot under the charter, use licence fee revenue. It therefore seems unusual to extend the NAO’s remit and I would be grateful for an explanation as to why that may be the case.
My second point on the NAO relates to its questioning as to the merits of any editorial or creative judgment. The charter makes it clear that the NAO cannot stray into this area, but it also specifies that it is for the Comptroller and Auditor General to determine whether such activity is within the confines of that which it is not permitted to determine. Although the NAO must “consult” the BBC when making this determination, I agree with Mr Watson that there is no dispute mechanism in place should the BBC wish to contest the NAO’s determination. Again, I ask the Government to seek to rectify that should disagreements occur between the two bodies.
The third area on which I hope the Government will focus relates to distinctive output, which is now written into the charter, with the requirement for Ofcom to hold the BBC to account for its delivery on distinctiveness. My concern is that there appears to be the utilisation of quotas from the outset. Lord Grade has said that
“quotas and prescription are the enemies of innovation and distinctiveness. The BBC must be…free to experiment and to take the risks and meet the challenges that free-to-air private sector broadcasters cannot afford to.”—[Official Report, House of Lords,
Vol. 774, c. 1986.]
May I ask that Ofcom be given the discretion to determine whether quotas are the best way for the BBC to deliver distinctive output? A broadcaster that bravely decides to put ballroom dancing and baking competitions on prime-time TV is doing pretty well in this space already, so I do not believe the Government have or should have concerns as to the distinctiveness of the BBC.
During the debate about this charter renewal, those supporting the BBC wanted to ensure that the licence fee would be preserved and would rise by inflation; that the next licence fee renewal would be taken out of the electoral cycle; and that the Government appointments to the new board would not outweigh the BBC appointments. The Government have listened to these concerns, in addition to many others, and have given the BBC even more independence and support than existed previously. I am grateful to the Government for continuing to support this amazing and unique institution, which is the envy of the world. It is true that if we were inventing the BBC for the first time in 2016, it would not be organised or funded as it now is. At a cost of only 40p per day, thank goodness we have it, and long may it remain.
It is a great privilege to close the debate this afternoon. As most hon. Members have acknowledged, the BBC is a great British achievement. It is truly a national treasure: a hugely precious communal possession. We all own the BBC, so it is natural that so many of us have such strong views about changing it. As an organisation with such reach and power, it is entirely right that the BBC’s new royal charter is the cause of intense debate, so I welcome the interesting and important points made here today from all parts of the House.
It has been particularly heartening to see such agreement across the House on the need for the BBC to improve its diversity commitments. The former Secretary of State, Mr Whittingdale, Mr Vaizey, a former Minister, the SNP Front Benchers, Mrs Grant and my right hon. Friend Mr Lammy all spoke passionately about the need for the BBC to do better. The hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald made the important point that there is no Ofcom information sheet on diversity and equal opportunities, and that full transparency is necessary to drive diversity. She looks forward, as we do, to tougher action from the new Ofcom chief executive, Sharon White, and a stronger challenge to the BBC, particularly on the publication of data.
Damian Collins—I would not want to be accused of partiality in the reporting of what was said by the two Members who are in competition to be Chair of the Select Committee—equally championed transparency as being vital to the charter. He rightly praised the BBC for taking risks that no other broadcaster would. However, as was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham, who is not yet back in his place, the BBC has never published an evaluation of its diversity policy, despite more than 30 initiatives. He is an assiduous campaigner and he will not let the Front Benchers on either side of the House take their foot off the pedal on diversity progress in the BBC.
Criticism has come from several Members who have substantial experience in this policy area, no one less than the former Minister, the right hon. Member for Wantage. We are sorry that he has been taken off the Front Bench, but pleased that he has been liberated on the Back Benches, and completely support his comments that the contestable fund is too small and risks creating additional bureaucracy. That money should go back to the BBC with a condition that it is spent on specific diverse content, such as children’s broadcasting.
The former shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend Maria Eagle, gave a passionate defence of the BBC. We are incredibly grateful to her for her tireless work on scrutinising the Government’s reforms to the BBC charter. She sought reassurance from the Government on three key areas: the specific definition of distinctiveness from Ofcom; what additional resource will be provided to Ofcom in its new role; and what changes the mini charter review will be empowered to make.
Similarly, my hon. Friend Helen Goodman, another former shadow Minister, raised concerns about the potential for interference in editorial content and decision making and about opening up the BBC to anti-competition challenges. We look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments on those matters.
I particularly enjoyed the speech from Alberto Costa and what amounted to little more than SNP baiting across the Chamber. I would not like to get in between the two—I certainly would not fancy my chances. Kelly Tolhurst made the important but quite fundamental point about the BBC being our greatest and proudest export. Nigel Huddleston gave an excellent speech, which was appreciated by Members on both sides of the House. He made the important point that the Select Committee will have a role in overseeing the appointment of the chair of the new board, which is a welcome improvement on the appointment of the chair of the trust, which provoked criticism all round.
Kwasi Kwarteng made the case for us to hold the BBC’s feet to the fire on diversity, and not simply rely on a vague impression that we have improved. Last but not least, Huw Merriman listed sporting events and the 95% threshold. I can assure him that we will consider that matter in the Digital Economy Bill Committee when it reaches scrutiny of part 4 next week. I hope that the Minister has been listening and that he will seek to amend that piece of legislation himself. If he does not, we have an amendment that is ready to go in the line by line scrutiny next week.
I welcome the opportunity to add my own contribution to that of my hon. Friends. The charter renewal process is a chance to strengthen and adapt the BBC’s position as it heads into each new decade, so that it remains a crucial part of our national conversation. As my hon. Friend Mr Watson has said, we on these Benches broadly approve of this new version. Of course we have our concerns about the role of the NAO and the distinctiveness requirement and the interpretation of that by Ofcom. On the whole, this charter is a welcome confirmation of the BBC’s scope and the principle of universality. It is a confirmation that the BBC should continue doing what it does so well, which is providing something for everyone from “Gardeners World” to “Doctor Who”, “The One Show” to “The Life Scientific” and “Woman’s Hour” to “Charlie and Lola”. It is a welcome removal of the BBC from the political cycle, which can only help safeguard its independence—the independence that we know that the public value so highly. It is also a welcome redoubling of the BBC’s diversity obligations.
The BBC must go into its second century with a much better representation—on screen and off—of race, sex, age and ability. It is only right that all licence fee payers should see themselves in the programmes for which they are paying, so the BBC’s commitment to diversity must get even broader. It must learn to seek out talent across all the social classes. There is a stereotype of the sort of person who makes the telly: the white posh kid with a good education and the right contacts. The BBC needs to blast that stereotype apart and make it as old-fashioned a concept as continuity announcers wearing dinner jackets. It should be seen as a funny piece of outdated nonsense that has nothing to do with the modern BBC. I look forward to seeing that happen and working constructively with the Government on how we monitor and enforce genuine diversity in all its forms across the BBC.
I also join hon Members in applauding the emphasis placed in the charter on accurately reporting and portraying the lives of all people in all the regions of the UK. Let me make the point again that we all pay for the BBC, so it is only right that the BBC should repay that investment by commissioning and making programmes in and for all the nations of this country.
In truth, there is much to approve of in this new charter. The positives almost make up for the underhand, aggressive, bully-boy way this Government negotiated the last licence-fee settlement. The BBC should not have been given the responsibility for funding a Tory party manifesto pledge and nor should it have been given responsibility for delivering the Government's social policy on free TV licences for the over-75s. It should have felt able to reject even the suggestion that it take on the cost of those free TV licences. That it did not—that it ended up in essence agreeing to become an arm of the Department for Work and Pensions—says a lot about the cavalier, overbearing, menacing way that this Government treated an organisation that they should cherish. It is the equivalent of outsourcing children’s services to Virgin Care and asking Richard Branson to administer child benefit and who should get it. Virgin would not accept such a proposal, seeing it as a threat to its reputation, and the BBC should not have to do so either.
The Labour party will not support Government cowardice in outsourcing welfare policy to an unaccountable organisation. If the Conservatives wanted to cut TV licence fees for over-75s, they should have had the guts to put that in their manifesto and they should have campaigned on it, but they did not. So although we support the charter, we will return to the matter in the Committee stage of the Digital Economy Bill. Despite public outcry, this Government have still not ruled out further such stick-ups. They have refused to establish a transparent process to set the licence fees of the future. Without such a reassurance, we do not consider the matter a done deal.
We shall consider the issue again as the Digital Economy Bill goes through Committee because we on the Labour Benches are committed to the cause of a strong, independent, well funded national broadcaster. It is nothing less than the British public deserve and we shall not let this Government hollow out, purely for petty political gain, an institution that the British people prize so highly.
It is a pleasure to respond on behalf of the Government to this long and high-quality debate on the BBC’s future. The debate is a fitting conclusion to the process of charter review, during which we have had some hotly contested debates and some discussions that have brought cross-party approval. We have debated some of the crucial issues surrounding what everybody agrees is one of the most loved public institutions in this country. It is good to be able to think about so many of those issues today—almost all the key issues that have been debated over the past year have once again been discussed in this debate. That reflects well on the BBC and the House.
We have reached a positive outcome. That seems to be the overwhelming sentiment in the debates in this House, in the other place and in the three devolved Assemblies, which, over the past few weeks, have all debated the settlement, the charter and the agreement. Crucially, the BBC broadly agrees with the approach that we are taking, and I am hugely heartened because this broad consensus of support for the way in which the BBC will go forward over the next 11 years is an asset to the nation. It shows that we have done the right thing for the BBC, for the UK’s unique creative sector and for the audiences whom we serve all around the United Kingdom.
I pay tribute to those who have done most of the work. I am proud to have played a small part, but the real heavy lifting was done by my right hon. Friends the Members for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) and for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), who are both in their places, rightly blushing, as they should have done all the way through the debate. It was very entertaining to see their private disagreements being aired in public. The fact that we have such capable, wise and thoughtful former Ministers contributing from the Back Benches is a great asset. My hon. Friend Damian Collins said that everyone loves the BBC, and I am sure my hon. Friend Andrew Bridgen will put him right shortly.
I thank all Members who contributed and fed into the charter review and all the 192,000 members of the public and organisations who have been involved. I shall go through as many of the detailed issues as I can. On diversity, we drew on a strong well of cross-party support across the House from all the parties whose Members spoke. It is critical that the BBC should reflect the nation that it serves. It has acknowledged that it needs to do more, but more it must do. I am sure that it will, but we will undoubtedly hold its feet to the fire, and Ofcom will ensure that the commitments in the charter are upheld. Of course, it is for the BBC board, in the first instance, to set, monitor and fulfil its policies, but Ofcom will assess that performance periodically. Sharon White, the chief executive of Ofcom, has already remarked upon the BBC’s diversity record and said that it needs to do better, so clearly progress needs to be made.
Mr Cunningham, my hon. Friend Mrs Grant and Mr Lammy all made powerful speeches on the importance of diversity. In answer to a specific point, an information sheet on diversity policy will be produced pronto. On screen and off screen matter; it matters not only who is reflecting the country on our TV screens, but who is making the decisions and who is working at all levels of the organisation. I think that is true across most organisations. The case was put most strongly when the point was made that this is not only a social but an economic imperative, because we need to draw on all the talents of our nation.
Several Members talked about the importance of radio, including Ian C. Lucas, my right hon. Friend Chris Evans and my hon. Friend Peter Heaton-Jones. Support for the BBC delivering diverse radio content is incredibly important, and I am sure that the BBC has heard the message loud and clear.
I want to address the point about distinctiveness. Including distinctiveness in the BBC charter was an important part of the renewal process. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon spoke about that eloquently. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the Government see distinctiveness in exactly the way he set out. In answer to a question that was asked, the draft agreement makes it clear that BBC services and output need to be taken as a whole when it comes to distinctiveness. Ofcom has the experience and guidance to treat complaints relating to distinctiveness properly and appropriately. It will set broad metrics, but this must not become a tick-box exercise. It needs to take into account all BBC output. Again, those will be high-level requirements. Ofcom can then develop an evidence-based approach to think about the BBC’s distinctiveness.
Let me turn to appointments and governance, which was a point of contention for some Members. My hon. Friend Kelly Tolhurst spoke powerfully about the need to ensure that we have strong governance to support an excellent BBC. There was strong support for the unitary board and for external regulation by Ofcom. We have been working closely with the BBC to set out the processes by which the new board will be established. Some Members suggested that the processes undermined the BBC’s independence. They could not be more wrong. The new processes for appointment to the BBC board are unprecedented, in terms of the number of appointments that will fall to the BBC itself. Of course, Government appointments, following the proper OCPA—Office of Commissioner for Public Appointments—processes, are often for independent positions. Once appointed, all appointees will be independent board members of the BBC, responsible for the BBC in its entirety. The board, as was clearly pointed out, will not have editorial control; it will be non-executive. I thought that my hon. Friend Nigel Huddleston made the argument very well when he explained this quite passionately and set out Ofcom’s oversight role.
Let me turn to the over-75s deal, which I am told we will return to in the Digital Economy Bill. Chris Bryant and Opposition Front Benchers set out concerns about this. The agreement on the concession for free TV licences is important. The licence fee is classed as a tax, and as such the Government retain ultimate control over it. That is the system we have successfully relied upon for decades. The track record is unbroken by last summer’s deal. Far from using some of the terms that were used in the debate, I will leave the House with this comment by the BBC’s director-general:
“The government’s decision to put the cost of the over-75s on us has been more than matched by the deal coming back for the BBC.”
That is the reality of the settlement that was agreed, and it is why it is reasonable for everybody to support it. The deal was reached in negotiation with the BBC, and there were concessions in return—for instance, closing the iPlayer loophole and making sure that all those who watch BBC content will pay for the BBC in the future. The closure of the iPlayer loophole is one of the important long-term considerations that will support the BBC sustainably into the very distant future.
As part of the deal, we said that we will transfer the policy of the over-75s concessions to the BBC in the Digital Economy Bill, and some people were concerned about that, but the BBC itself requested that change. The BBC has a long history of dealing delicately with matters on the licence fee, which, while it remains the most supported method of funding the BBC, is not universally popular, but I am sure the BBC will be able to handle that appropriately.
We had a series of discussions about the contestable fund. In fact, this was one of the moments of extraordinary distance between my right hon. Friends the Members for Maldon and for Wantage. There they are sitting next to each other right now, but the gap was apparent in their speeches earlier. The licence fee is a fee paid by the general public to watch or record TV programmes; it is not necessarily just a payment for BBC services. That was true in the last Parliament and the last settlement, when we used some of that money for broadband, which was very exciting. It is reasonable that a small proportion of the licence fee can be made available to organisations other than the BBC to help deliver publicly funded content.
My right hon. Friend understandably draws attention to the apparently contested views on the contestable fund of my right hon. Friends the Members for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) and for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), but the truth is that those views—like BBC1 and BBC2, or like Radio 6 Music and Radio 1—are in fact complementary. Yes, there is a slight difference between them, but they reinforce the overall thrust and wisdom of the reforms that, together, my right hon. Friends introduced and that, I think, are applauded across the House.
I would love to say I agree with my right hon. Friend, but he obviously missed those exchanges, because there really was quite a lot of distance between my two right hon. Friends. In fact, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage repudiated the position he had supported when he was bound by collective responsibility. However, the troika of my right hon. Friends will no doubt be able to discuss the issue at length as we debate what the contestable fund should be used on. Given that this is a pilot, we are going to look at, and work on, how the contestable fund should operate. At the end of the pilot, we will then assess the impact of the scheme. Questions were raised over the permanence of the funding. There is £60 million of funding over two to three years. Then we can assess the effectiveness of having a contestable fund.
Many right hon. and hon. Members discussed the mid-term review. Most were supportive, and it is entirely reasonable that we look at how Ofcom discharges its duties, for instance. It will not look at the mission of the BBC, the public purposes of the BBC or the licence fee funding model over the period of the charter. However, there were a couple of dissident voices. Maria Eagle was grateful that the process was taken out of the political cycle, and she supported separate processes for funding and review in future, but she was concerned about mission creep in the mid-term review. I want to assure her that this is not envisaged as another charter review, but it is right that we can have a look at how things are working halfway through the next 11 years.
Several Members discussed the importance of the National Audit Office. I can confirm that it will assess value for money, and it will cover publicly funded areas and subsidiaries. The same rules that the Comptroller and Auditor General uses for what is in scope will apply for the BBC, and I do not see why that should be any different.
On listed events, I understand the concern raised by my hon. Friend Huw Merriman. We have looked in detail at this, and we disagree on the matter. We do not think that the BBC’s concerns are valid, but we will of course keep it under review.
There was a big discussion about salary transparency. I strongly believe in transparency of salaries for publicly funded posts. As the Secretary of State set out, BBC studios are commercial—as they must be under the charter—and it is therefore reasonable for them not to be covered, but the BBC itself is public. This is public money, so transparency is reasonable, as in other parts of the public sector.
I turn to the SNP amendment and the devolved legislatures. Broadcasting is a reserved matter, because broadcasting is a national issue, and the BBC is the nation’s broadcaster. Of course, the BBC needs better to reflect the diversity of the whole UK, and we have worked hard to ensure that that is in the charter and the agreement. I remind the House that the new charter includes the implementation of recommendations from the Smith commission, which, as my hon. Friend Alberto Costa outlined so powerfully, did not recommend that broadcasting or the affairs of the BBC be devolved. On the specific issue of the Scottish six o’clock news, which has drawn so much speculation, it is vital that the BBC is editorially independent, so that politicians cannot interfere with editorial matters. A vote for the amendment is a vote for political control of the BBC. The SNP may want political control of the BBC, but we say no. What is more, as the charter says, the BBC, as the nation’s broadcaster,
“should bring people together for shared experiences and help contribute to the social cohesion and wellbeing of the United Kingdom”.
I hope that the House will resist the amendment, support the charter and all the work that has gone into it over the past year, and, with that, wish the BBC a strong, vital and healthy future.
Amendment proposed: (a), at end insert—
“and, recognising the special identities of the nations of the UK, calls upon the Government and the British Broadcasting Corporation to deliver maximum devolution of broadcasting and, specifically for Scotland, the six o’clock news option recommended by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee in its Third Report, BBC White Paper and related issues (HC 150), published in August 2016”.—(John Nicolson.)
Question put, That the amendment be made.
The House divided:
Ayes 53, Noes 270.