Women in News and Current Affairs Broadcasting (Communications Committee Report) — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:11 pm on 8th September 2015.

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Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport) 5:11 pm, 8th September 2015

My Lords, I declare a previous interest in that I was briefly a member of the Communications Committee and therefore I suppose I am disposed to like what it does. In mitigation, I was there for only a short time. But it does a very good job and this debate has exemplified that. We owe a great debt to the Communications Committee for its excellent choice of this topic and to all those who have spoken this afternoon. Having said that, I am bound to say that I did not think the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, got it right. I felt he hit a couple of wrong notes, perhaps harking back to some earlier golden age that he believes would better represent how women should behave. Indeed, as he went on, I thought he had been script writing on the side for Donald Trump and his views about how women should be presented. I may have got him wrong and I am happy to have a further discussion with him, but he was the only one who did not seem to pick up the main points made by this excellent report. I hope that he will reflect, as we all should, on the points made by the noble Lords, Lord Sherbourne and Lord Holmes of Richmond, and pick up on the very powerful case argued by my noble friend Lady Healy.

At any rate, the great majority of those who contributed today also have the authority and presence born of experience. As a result, this shows again, as the noble Lord, Lord Razzall, said, what a significant contribution our Select Committee publications make to the development of public policy.

As we have heard, diversity in broadcasting was in a dire state in recent years. I agree with the Government that the report has played a valuable role not only in gathering evidence and looking at solutions, but in raising awareness of where inequalities still persist in this important part of our creative industries. At this point, I pick up the recent Ofcom and EHRC reports mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill and the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond, which are excellent contributions to the issues raised in this report. I also agree with the Government and the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, that making progress on this agenda will not only support women to fully utilise their skills and increase women’s contribution to the UK economy but can also help to have a lasting impact on future generations of women and to tackle outdated gender stereotypes. As the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, brilliantly exemplified, the report makes one think very widely about how work is organised in advanced societies and makes one ask why things have to be as they are at present.

However, despite some good progress reported in recent responses by the major broadcasters, we have heard that a lot more work still needs to be done. This issue, as the report makes clear, is not just about fairness. It raises fundamental questions about gender relations and employment practices, and about what gets selected for coverage on our screens and on radio, how that is done and what impact it has on those of all ages and backgrounds who consume the output. It is that important.

Some have said that, at heart, what is required is a culture change, and of course the issue is not limited to the broadcasting industries, let alone news and current affairs. But that simply proves that this is a complex issue which requires action at many levels. The good news is that the report provides compelling evidence and is an excellent basis for the action that now needs to be taken by individuals and groups, broadcasters, the Government, regulators and other key stakeholders. As the noble Lord, Lord Best, confirmed in his excellent speech, this report is convincing on what now needs to happen in senior management, on screen, in the technical areas, in the use of experts and freelancers, and in the commissioning of and creative support for the programmes that are made. There is also a read-across to other protected characteristics such as age, minority ethnic representation and GLBTI.

A large number of points have been raised by speakers in this debate and I do not want to cover them all. Rather, I will focus on two areas, one of which is the letter from Ofcom which was received by the committee and has been made available in the Library report, and the other is on the Government’s response. Although I broadly support it, it does leave some gaps.

On the Ofcom recommendations, it was good to note that the Government have written to Ofcom,

“highlighting the long lasting, positive impact transparency can have in relation to women’s economic empowerment”.

But, really, is there not a bit more that the Government could do here? For example, the report makes it clear that currently there are insufficient data on the gender of freelancers and on whether women are adversely affected by the widespread use of freelance contracts in the industry. The report recommends that Ofcom should use its powers under Section 337 of the Communications Act 2003 to require broadcasters to collect data on the age and gender of the freelance workers they employ. I find the Ofcom response, which is important because the legislation is specific on this point, a bit puzzling. When she comes to respond, I wonder whether the Minister could comment on what the regulator is saying. On the one hand, Ofcom agrees that freelancers must be included in any monitoring system in order to have a full picture of diversity in the broadcasting sector. As it has powers under the Act, why do Ministers not insist that it uses them?

It is true that Ofcom has said that it is working with and fully supports the implementation of the Creative Diversity Network’s diversity monitoring system. That is Project Diamond, which has already been referred to and is clearly a good thing. But the project is only in testing at the moment and we will not get the first data from it until early next year. Even more worrying is that I understand that the broadcasters have not yet worked out how and when news and sport will be integrated, so the results will be patchy and will not include the key areas that we want to look at. Is that the case? Does the Minister agree that in understanding the barriers facing women in journalism, we need to ensure that news is included as soon as possible? Perhaps I may suggest to the Minister that she undertakes to impress on the broadcasters the need to get news integrated into the whole system as soon as possible.

Finally on this point, Ofcom has said that it has considered whether carrying out additional monitoring would make a difference above and beyond what Diamond may provide, and is currently of the view that it would not be proportionate for Ofcom to duplicate the work of the CDN. I suggest that this seems a rather more relaxed approach than is warranted by the seriousness of the issue as raised in the debate. I would therefore be grateful if the Minister could say whether she agrees with Ofcom on this point, and if not, whether she will press the regulator at least to have some contingency plans ready if in the end the data are not sufficient. Whatever, I think that there will be a gap, which is to be regretted.

I turn now to the recommendations for the Government set out in the report and their response to them. It is common ground between us all that the Government have the duty to ensure that there is a strong legal framework which promotes equality of opportunity for both men and women. However, I would be grateful for some specific comments from the Minister on the following. First, the Communications Act places duties on Ofcom to promote training and equality of opportunity for providers of TV and radio services. In light of the report, have the Government recently reviewed whether this is sufficient? Ofcom seems to be strong on the training that needs to be available, but not so strong on the equality of opportunity that is required in practice. Will the Government act on this?

Secondly, the licence conditions for Channel 3, Channel 4 and Channel 5 require licensees to promote equality of opportunity between men and women with respect to employment. Can the Minister share with us what discussions took place with these broadcasters when their licences were recently renewed? Did the Government consider whether it was necessary to change the current wording in the light of the report, and if not, why not?

The BBC framework agreement imposes an equality of opportunity duty on the BBC executive board. Will the noble Baroness confirm that this issue will be taken up in the charter discussions currently ongoing? Of course, the BBC, S4C and Channel 4 are required to comply with the public sector equality duty under Section 149 of the Equality Act 2010. Can the noble Baroness tell us whether any prosecutions have been brought against the BBC, S4C or Channel 4 under this Act?

Since 1 October 2012, BSkyB and ITV, which are FTSE 100-listed companies, have had disclosure requirements on gender diversity at board and senior management level. Does the Minister think that there is a case for extending these requirements to BBC, S4C and Channel 4, so that—to pick up on the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Holmes—we get better disclosure across the sector for the numbers of men and women on boards, in senior management and in the businesses as a whole?

Finally, the Government’s response mentions the amendments to the small business Bill that will implement Section 78 of the Equality Act 2010 requiring the introduction of mandatory gender pay gap reporting for larger companies. May I take it that the reason that this point was included in the Government’s response is that the Government intend to include broadcasting companies in these regulations when they come through? It is not clear in the response whether that is the case. It simply refers to the fact that there will be a consultation shortly. Clearly, if the Government believe:

“Greater transparency around the gender pay gap will encourage employers to address the underlying factors and share best practice”,

surely they should include the broadcasting bodies in the implementation of Section 78. I look forward to hearing the Minister on that point.