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 Ashton of Hyde Lord Ashton of Hyde Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport 5:45 pm, 8th February 2017

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Stevenson and Lord Foster, for their contributions. I start with something that has nothing to do with this. I point out to the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, who said that I did not realise quite what was going on with the BBC because I only joined halfway through, that the BBC was debated 19 times before the BBC charter review in various different forms—so it certainly had an outing if not in quite the way that noble Lords might have wished.

Moving on to the amendments in this group, the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, concerns the impact of the BBC’s new royal charter on radio production. There has been a lot of misinformation and confusion about this change, so I hope to set the record straight. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Foster, the proposal for change originated from the BBC. It was well received by the Radio Independents Group, which had for a number of years been seeking to have more opportunities to bid for commissions from the BBC. Following negotiations between those two bodies, it was announced by the director of BBC Radio in June 2015. That agreement predated the publication of the BBC Green Paper.

Under the agreement, the BBC agreed to move from the current very limited quota-based arrangements to a new commissioning structure, opening up 60% of eligible hours to competition by 2022. This is a change that we strongly support, since it gives significant new opportunities to the growing independent radio production sector and gives BBC radio audiences access to the best ideas out there. But increasing the competition between independent and in-house productions does not guarantee, as the noble Lord, Lord Foster, reminded us, that the independent sector will receive more commissions. Companies will have to bid for work and BBC in-house staff will still be capable of winning. Unlike TV, there will still be, in effect, an in-house guarantee of 40% of all programmes, which reflects the BBC’s continuing importance to radio.

The new BBC charter sets a firm timescale for the implementation of this change. However, the timescale for the transition—by 2022—was set by the agreement between the BBC and the RIG in June 2015. It has to be for the BBC to consider the transitional arrangements in consultation with the independent production sector and to report on them as appropriate. These are operational matters for the BBC and it is not for us to have to report on them. The BBC already reports on a number of its production and commissioning outcomes across TV and radio and I am sure that it will continue to strive for transparency here. I do, however, acknowledge the concerns that the noble Lords, Lord Stevenson and Lord Foster, raised about the implications for BBC staff.

The changes are being introduced with a long transition and both the BBC and RIG are taking steps to ensure that the transition is as smooth as possible. The noble Lord, Lord Foster, talked about training. There is a strong ethos of training and diversity in the independent sector. For example, the next RIG offers a training programme that so far has provided training days to 1,089 individual learners, including a diversity mentoring scheme. Of the learners, 60% are women, 15% are BME and 5% are disabled. The RIG encourages its members to recruit from a diverse pool of candidates and also liaises with the BBC’s diversity team. It encourages its members to match the BBC’s employment conditions.

I am sure that both the BBC and the radio industry will pay close attention to the points raised by noble Lords today and take steps to ensure that the transition is handled as sensitively as possible. Fundamentally, though, this is about giving commissioners greater choice and ensuring that listeners have access to the best possible radio shows.

With that explanation, I hope that the noble Lord will be able to withdraw his amendment.

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