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Future of the BBC — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:11 pm on 14th July 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills 8:11 pm, 14th July 2015

My Lords, this has been an excellent debate and I congratulate my noble friend on securing it. Indeed, I was one of the first to compliment him on his expert timing. As is always the case when we discuss broadcasting in this place, and particularly when the BBC is our focus, noble Lords have left the House in no doubt whatever about how much these issues matter, and they have done so in a very focused, excellent two-minute way. I have listened very carefully to all the concerns, although I did not always agree with everything. However, it has set a very useful backdrop to the discussions that we will be having over the next 18 months.

The BBC is a world-renowned institution. It delivers high quality to 97% of the UK population every week. That is up 1% on last year, the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, will be glad to know. It retains a unique importance in the UK’s broadcasting industry and in our collective sense of identity, and it is a brand that is respected and valued around the world—a world beater, indeed. I agree with my noble friend Lord Grade about how much the BBC is valued as one travels around the world.

The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, will have been very glad to hear—from the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, in fact—that a report today has put the UK at No. 1 in respect of soft power. I believe that that is partly thanks to the strength and excellence of the BBC.

Let us look at the BBC World Service as a case in point. Kofi Annan referred to the World Service as,

“perhaps Britain’s greatest gift to the world”.

I am sure noble Lords will agree that it is occasionally able to reach the parts that ambassadors cannot.

Beyond this, the BBC provides a breadth of services and content that we are all able to enjoy. That includes coverage of the Ashes on “Test Match Special”—I agree with my noble friend Lord Patten of Barnes about the importance of sport—high-quality drama such as “Wolf Hall”, the recently relaunched children’s classic, “The Clangers”, and its genuinely pioneering and constantly improving website. As the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, said, the BBC nourishes musical talent, as well as acting and writing talent—as we were discussing at Question Time today.

The BBC is also unique in the way in which it is funded, and in terms of the level of obligations and expectations placed upon it. A universal licence fee, which must be paid for all viewing of live or nearly live content, brings with it a set of expectations from all licence fee payers—chiefly, delivery on all its public purposes, maintaining the highest quality of original, distinctive content, journalistic independence and integrity, and ensuring value for money for every penny of licence fee spent.

The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, asked whether the Government are aware of savings already made by the BBC. The noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, gave us an inside track on some of the difficulties. We welcome a BBC that ensures that every penny spent represents good value, and we welcome the work that has been done by the BBC to achieve this, particularly in recent times through its Delivering Quality First efficiency programme.

Clearly, the BBC has faced serious challenges over the 10-year period of the current charter. In all these areas—value for money, governance and accountability, or concerns over quality and balance of coverage—the BBC has on occasion been the subject of some controversy and complaint, not just among parliamentarians but the licence fee paying public more broadly. As my noble friend Lord Fowler acknowledged, change is needed.

One particular area of contention both for noble Lords and in the other place is the extent to which the BBC manages to meet its impartiality obligations, and how best this should be achieved and regulated. Looking ahead to the EU referendum, for example, it will be crucial that the BBC, as with other broadcasters, maintains balance and impartiality in its coverage to ensure the public can make the best-informed choices. We have written to the BBC, other public service broadcasters and Ofcom to say just that.

As we near the end of the current charter, we are also presented with the opportunity, through the charter review, to consider in full the BBC’s activities, its appropriate scale and scope, and how it should deliver in the future what is expected of it by all licence fee payers. The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, asked if the Green Paper was on track. I am glad to be able to answer positively and say that a charter review consultation document will be published this Thursday. This will provide another opportunity for this House to discuss these matters, and the document will set out a range of important questions about the future of the BBC and almost every aspect of how it operates. The Government are very clear that the charter review process will be as open and consultative as possible. It will be similar in many respects to the previous review—I look forward to discussing this further on Thursday—and will ensure that the views and concerns of all of us who have a stake in the BBC, as well as the views of the panel, are heard and considered in full.

The sort of concerns that have been raised tonight that are relevant to the debate on the review include: the operating model and governance, as the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, said; its boundaries, which were the concern of my noble friend Lord Patten; the process for the future, which was the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Birt; and the future of the BBC Trust, which the right reverend Prelate felt needed change. On the process point, my noble friend Lord Inglewood suggested a charter review procedure Bill to govern future settlements. As I have said, we will run an open consultation and welcome all such proposals, including those on process, and I am of course happy to write to the noble Lord and respond to the points he made.

Although nobody has mentioned it because of the two-minute rule—other than the noble Lord, Lord Best, who spoke most eloquently—the noble Lord, Lord Best, chairs the Lords Communications Committee, which recently began its own inquiry into the BBC. This will be a valuable, in-depth look at the BBC’s public purposes, which we will all be interested to see. Given the matchless expertise and experience of that committee’s membership, including many Members here tonight, it will undoubtedly be an important piece of work. I hope that we will see the outcomes of some of that work in the spring of next year, and indeed emerging findings, so that those can feed into the review as it progresses.

Last week, we were afforded the opportunity to consider the Government’s agreement with the BBC in respect of concessionary TV licences for people aged over 75. As explained by my noble friend Lord Courtown last week, these new arrangements, which have been agreed with the BBC, are firm but fair and will ensure that the BBC, as a publicly financed body, plays its part in carrying the burden of necessary deficit reduction. This is a point that has not been strongly made: in times of financial constraint, as we find ourselves in now, those with the broadest shoulders need to bear a share of the burden.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hall—I think he was described as the good Lord Hall—for saying on the “Today” programme, a great BBC institution, that this represents a strong deal for the BBC, giving it financial stability and the ability to plan for the future, which he believes in for what he called, “this wonderful creative organisation”. Further, he welcomed the

Government’s commitment to look specifically at modernising the licence fee for the digital age. This agreement also gives good notice for potential changes coming down the line to address changing consumer trends with the revolution of digital.

I acknowledge the concerns that have been raised by noble Lords tonight about this agreement and the funding of concessionary licences for the over-75s from the licence fee. However, if I stand back for a moment, I believe that there is a good balance between the reduction in funding for free TV licences and the new flexibilities, which will provide growing income from catch-up and a reduction in the contribution to broadband.

Additionally, to respond to the noble Lord, Lord Best, although the licence fee has not been settled, because it will be subject to the outcomes of the charter review, the Government have indicated that it will rise in line with the consumer prices index over the next charter period, starting in January 2017.

The noble Lord, Lord Roberts, spoke as he always does of both the BBC and our Welsh language broadcaster. I am sure he will welcome the news in S4C’s annual report that 8.4 million people are watching S4C every week in the UK—an increase of 10% on the previous year. We should be clear that the Government are keenly aware of the importance of S4C and other minority language broadcasters.

In conclusion, I wish to thank once again all who have contributed to tonight’s debate and, in particular, my noble friend Lord Fowler for securing it. I am glad to say that the end of the world is not at hand. Given the BBC’s importance to our daily life, and the content and services that it provides to the UK and the world, we should be clear that no one is seriously proposing the BBC’s abolition. This evening, noble Lords have demonstrated admirably the vital role that this House has to play in the debate on the BBC’s future and in the forthcoming charter review. I am sure, as my noble friend Lord Patten of Barnes said, we will come back to the subject again and again.

Sitting suspended.