Digital Economy Bill - Committee (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 8th February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 5:45 pm, 8th February 2017

My Lords, I was slightly surprised at the way the Minister rebuffed concerns about the way in which Parliament engaged with the royal charter process last time. It might be because he joined us halfway through, to a little bit of shock but quite a lot of pleasure. Looking back on it, I do not think it can be said that Parliament was as engaged as it wished to be in the process. The ability to speak on two occasions when Statements were graciously made by Ministers, and to speak in one debate focusing, at that stage, on the draft charter, with the agreement as yet not finalised, can hardly be described as participating actively in the process. I think we can agree to differ on that point. I am sure that noble Lords who spoke in the earlier debate had a very different version of how that might have gone, including involvement by Select Committees and involvement in the detail, which would have resulted in proper and effective scrutiny of the Government’s proposals and the eventual outcome.

This amendment, by serendipity, actually deals with some of the fall-out of the rather deficient process we are going through. When charters are drafted, considered and debated, they are never alone: there are lots of other things going on. Many people present will be able to give witness to that effect. One of the things that sometimes gets missed out is the detail in the agreement. The agreement, of course, is really the mechanics of how the arrangement between the Government and the BBC works in practice. One was brought in in such a way and at such a time that it was never discussed in your Lordships’ House or in the other place. It only really became an issue once the charter was about to be sealed. The issue was the changes to the way national radio output was to be operated in future, which were being imposed on—although not necessarily resisted by—BBC management. That is the subject of this amendment.

Amendment 222E is a probing amendment, asking the Government to conduct a review of an important sector of the creative economy. It does not specifically relate to the BBC—although it is cued into something that is happening there—but it would provide useful information and detail that would be of interest to the Committee. If the review were carried out in the way I suggest, with a report covering a range of topics related to radio production, I hope it could be brought to your Lordships’ House and generate a good discussion.

In short, about 60% of BBC national radio output is going to be put out to competitive tender over the next few years, to 2020. Over the past 20 years, BBC radio has actually increased its external commissioning from zero to around 20% of output. That is quite a slow rate of progress, but that is not unconnected with the fact that we are talking about a very fragile sector of the creative industries. Radio production does not involve a very large group of people. The independents are usually quite small and not in the habit of operating on a scale that would enable them to take over the huge increase in the proportion of radio that we are talking about.

The proposal would mean an extra 3,000 hours of national radio output being put out to tender every year. That, of course, does not come free of charge, but with the cost of a commissioning process in-house at the BBC. Therefore, it is not all a one-way process: there will be additional costs. Those costs will not be funded by any additional funding from the licence fee or any other process, so there is bound to be a squeezing of radio budgets, and neither external nor in-house producers will be able to rely on getting any increase. It is going to be a rather difficult situation, affecting the people involved. Current in-house BBC radio producers will find that their jobs are largely going to disappear, because, although a significant number of programmes will be retained in-house, the 60% figure means that the majority will be produced externally.

The question of how the BBC will continue to operate as a major trainer in this area must be raised, because without the numbers, that training might well be at risk. Who else is going to do the training to ensure that radio has a flow of qualified people coming forward? Smaller independent production companies might not be able to scale up either quickly enough or with sufficient range to compete against those that will, perhaps, sweep the pool.

This is a really big change in an important part of our national life—a real adjustment—and it has not been given sufficient scrutiny. Given that it was not discussed in Parliament as far as I am aware and was hardly raised externally, the Government have a duty to think harder about the issues arising. The allegation was made that this proposal did not emerge from any consideration of the needs and purposes of BBC radio production, or indeed the independent radio production sector. In meetings I had with those involved, I was told that the ask for the independent sector was to get from the current 20% of output to 25% by 2020—in other words, a marginal increase on the existing arrangements. To go from 20% to 60% reflects what I think must have been external pressures. That rather makes the point that we need to know more about what is going on, and transparency would help.

The main purpose of the amendment is to focus on the situation that will emerge after 60% of national radio output is put out to competitive tender, and the benefits that will flow from that. I beg to move.