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 Foster of Bath Lord Foster of Bath Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 5:45 pm, 8th February 2017

My Lords, I have much sympathy with the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, although I have some disagreements with it as well, which I will come to. As the noble Lord said, the new charter obligation commits the BBC to extending competition for radio production. It was my understanding that that proposal came directly from the BBC—that it was not, as the noble Lord suggested, imposed on but not necessarily resisted by BBC management. As he said, it may or may not have been rather more than the independent radio producers were expecting or had requested. The Committee would benefit from hearing from the Minister a little about the background to this part of the charter and agreement.

What is clear is that it has been agreed that from April 2017, over a six-year period, the BBC will open up 60% of relevant hours—that is non-news, news-related current affairs or repeats—to competition both from in-house and indie producers. That represents about 27,000 hours of programming per year being open to competition. Although it will not go as far as what is happening in television, it is a further development of the process that began right back in 1992, when the BBC voluntarily made 10% available to independent production. That has developed over a number of years. The 10% voluntary figure was made compulsory, we then saw further developments and eventually the “compete and compare” framework was introduced, designed to drive up standards, reduce costs and ensure continuous improvement in all areas of operation.

Of course, the 60% available for competition does not guarantee the independent sector extra commissions. Independent companies will obviously have to have sufficiently good ideas and be able to demonstrate a track record of producing sufficiently high-quality content. The independent sector, of about 150 relatively small companies spread right across the country, has a growing track record of producing high-quality content and helping to increase the range and diversity of content available to BBC radio services. They produce some great programmes that win awards, and since the guide price for radio production is the same for both in-house and external producers, there is no increase in the production cost to the BBC.

It is good to hear that the independent sector is increasingly involved in training the next generation of producers through training programmes and mentoring schemes, helping to improve diversity: around 60% of learners are women, 15% are from BAME backgrounds, and 5% are people with a disability. But we have to be alert, as the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, suggested, to the impact these changes may have on the BBC and its own staff. They will certainly need increased levels of training and skills to negotiate, so that they can compete on a level playing field with the independents.

The review that is called for in the amendment is of course sensible, but we question whether it should take place quite as early in the process as recommended by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson. The 60% target for competition does not come into full effect until the end of 2022, which should provide the independent sector with plenty of time to develop the scale and expertise to pitch to make more programmes. It also allows time for the BBC to retrain and restructure. But the BBC acknowledges that while greater competition should deliver greater efficiency in programme costs, increasing the number of commissions open to competition threefold will require a larger in-house commissioning team, and there is already a potential impact on other in-house staff. I understand that the BBC is already in discussions with staff and trade unions about that.

It would make sense to have a review, but it should perhaps take place at the midway point between Royal Assent and 31 December 2020. If we are to have such a review, we need to look at some other issues that may form part of it, not least the BBC’s commissioning process, to ensure that the developing competition between in-house and independents is truly fair. However, we support the broad principle of the proposed review.