I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the transparency of the BBC.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Bone. I am grateful for this opportunity to highlight my concerns about the lack of transparency in the BBC’s use of public money in Northern Ireland and, I am sure, more widely. I secured a debate on the subject on a previous occasion but had to withdraw it for a variety of reasons. My concerns are not unique to Northern Ireland, but my speech will focus on BBC NI.
The BBC’s mission is
“to inform, educate and entertain audiences with programmes and services of high quality, originality and value.”
It used to be considered a reliable source of news and informative programming. It was the broadcaster to go to in times of crisis or turmoil—the dependable, publicly funded broadcaster. I am sorry to inform the House that as a result of events over the last few years, the BBC’s standing has been diminished.
Correspondence from MPs frequently goes totally unanswered or is met with a reply that avoids the issues. Questions about the use of public money are ignored or have a veil of secrecy pulled over them. I have concluded that the BBC fat cats in Belfast are either incredibly arrogant or incredibly shifty. What they are not is open and transparent. I have written to the BBC, but have had to come to this Chamber to raise these serious issues. I use the term “fat cats” because some of the best people in the BBC are the lowest-paid: the foot soldier producers and editors who work long shifts and arrange all the programmes.
I have long argued for maximum transparency from the BBC. I have several concerns. The first relates to pay transparency. The BBC nationally has long resisted the public demand for pay transparency, but it eventually agreed to publish the salaries of 96 stars, as they are called. Their combined salaries were almost £30 million. The public are now somewhat better informed about how their money has been used; we now know that the BBC believes that men should get more money than women for doing the same task. There was an outrageous gender pay disparity. It took a decade for the BBC to be dragged to the point of publishing all salaries of more than £150,000 per year.
In recent months, the BBC has indicated that more staff will be moved off the direct payroll and will therefore not feature in any published list next year, even though they are paid in excess of the £150,000 benchmark. So much for greater transparency. Whether that is motivated by the desire to reduce BBC staff’s personal tax liabilities, to avoid public scrutiny, or both, it is a shameful insight into the BBC top brass’s complete disregard for transparency.
An outrageous double standard is at play. While BBC presenters question elected representatives and others paid by the public purse about their salary and office costs, they hide behind a veil of secrecy about their own publicly funded annual salaries of £200,000, £300,000, £400,000 or more. I am glad that the salaries, overheads and so on of those in this Parliament are accessible to the taxpayer for scrutiny; that is how it should be. Why should the public money funding the BBC be treated any differently? I do not agree with BBC staff avoiding tax by channelling money through obscure personal service companies. This House should consider the ethics of that practice with respect to public money.
My second concern about transparency relates to complaints. A constituent of mine made a very simple freedom of information request:
“I request the number of complaints recorded against matters carried by BBC Northern Ireland for the following outlets: BBC Good Morning Ulster, BBC Nolan (radio), BBC Nolan Live (TV), BBC TalkBack, BBC Evening Extra, BBC Newsline, BBC NI website”.
That was not an unreasonable request. How many complaints have been launched? My constituent received the following reply:
“The information that you have requested is excluded from the Act because it is held for the purposes of ‘journalism, art or literature.’ The BBC is therefore not obliged to provide this information to you and will not be doing so on this occasion.”
So much for transparency. That reply was sent by Mr Mark Adair, BBC Northern Ireland’s head of corporate and community affairs. He told my constituent that he holds the information but needs it
“for the purposes of ‘journalism, art or literature.’”
That is clearly nonsense. Why would a publicly funded media organisation not be prepared to make public the number of complaints about its programmes from members of the public?
My third concern relates to the commissioning of programmes. Across the UK—though I will deal with Northern Ireland—the BBC commissions independent companies to produce programmes. However, independent production companies, editing companies and camera and lighting specialists are concerned that they are not getting a fair deal. I have heard stories of slow or reduced payments and a culture of fear. Those stories are fresh in my mind, because I heard them at first hand from those affected when I began to probe the commissioning process.
I wanted to establish what auditing mechanism exists for programmes, both when the contract is awarded and after the finished product has been delivered and broadcast. I also wanted to know how the BBC, as the main contractor, could be sure that subcontractors such as camera operators, lighting operators and editors were paid for their work under the contract. I asked some simple questions of Susan Lovell, the head of multi-platform commissioning for BBC Northern Ireland. I have yet to receive satisfactory answers to those 18 numbered questions, but I was offered a private briefing. The links in her response were so numerous that my printer ran out of ink and paper before I could print them all. The briefing is a nice offer, and I am sure I will take it up, but I would prefer answers.
On Tuesday I emailed Susan Lovell again, knowing that this debate had been tabled. I made my email even more succinct. I asked three straight questions:
“1. When programmes are commissioned and public money granted, how is the use of this money audited?
2. Is an external auditor employed to ensure this public money is appropriated in an ethical manner?
3. If a Commission is granted, can the contracted production company then seek additional monies for travel and other unforeseen production costs?”
Setting aside the fact that I am an MP, I would have assumed as a viewer that that was a perfectly reasonable set of queries.
I received a reply yesterday. It is funny how quickly minds can be exercised when a debate is about to be held; it takes weeks and months otherwise. The reply said:
“Expenditure profiles are a routine feature of programme proposals and allow us to make an informed assessment”.
I always get fearful when I hear answers from large companies that talk about informed assessments, but this was an informed assessment of
“value for money;
and we routinely audit our work and output against a range of metrics.”
The key words there are “we routinely audit”; one of my questions was whether an external auditor was employed—I think I have got an answer to that question, even if indirectly. When a programme is commissioned, delivered and broadcast, invoices relating to that contract should then be published online. That happens in many other areas of public service.
I turn to a specific example. In October 2014, a BBC Northern Ireland series, entitled “Story of a Lifetime”, was broadcast. According to the credits, it was produced for BBC NI by a company called Third Street Studios. However, according to Companies House,
“Third Street Studios was incorporated on
Almost one year ago, I cited this example and asked the BBC some questions:
“1. To whom and when did BBC NI award the contract for the 2014 series ‘Story of a Lifetime’?
2. What address did BBC NI use to communicate the commission to ‘Third Street Studios’?
3. Did BBC NI check if ‘Third Street Studios’ was incorporated before the programme was commissioned?”
To date, neither the company involved nor the BBC have been able to tell me where the Third Street Studios office is, how much the contract was for and to whom the contract was awarded.
I understand that a director of Third Street Studios is a BBC presenter. Indeed, according to the map on the Third Street Studios website, its office is at Belfast city hall. The “about us” section of the website declares:
“We pride ourselves in understanding mass market television. We don’t do ‘niche’. We do ‘massive’”.
This production company is so massive that I cannot find its office in Belfast. In fact, when I went online, according to the Google map provided, the company’s location is fairly prestigious: in front of Belfast city hall—at a taxi rank. Again, we have some questions that need answering.
When I emailed the company and its director, he said:
“I don’t think that it would be helpful, or appropriate” to answer my questions. For clarity, I asked about the procurement process, the contract value, the date the contract was awarded and the tendering process for appointing subcontractors. Remember, this is about a series that has already been broadcast on BBC television. The company director said that
“my work…could only properly be understood if equivalent information about all other production companies and their contracts with the BBC were to be placed in the public domain.”
So “I’ll go if you get everyone else to go”—that is effectively what he was saying.
That is further evidence of straightforward and simple questions being ignored. We need full transparency in BBC commissioning, and we need evidence that BBC commission contracts are externally audited.
My hon. Friend is making a very sound case about the BBC, but does he agree that it was this Government who called for increased transparency—maybe not in the areas that he is covering, but certainly on pay rates? They have actually unlocked many of the things that we will debate today, so this Government are definitely holding the BBC to account. Perhaps they should do more, but they are definitely working in this area.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I agree with her: the campaign over the past years to get further transparency is a work in progress, and we are much more advanced than we were 10 or 12 years ago. However, as I am outlining, there is much more work to do.
The fourth area that I want to cover is BBC accuracy and honesty. The BBC prides itself on posing questions, and all of us here are subject to those questions, but it is not very good at providing answers. In two instances during the past year, there have been very serious questions for the corporation in Northern Ireland to answer.
A green energy scheme with an initial potential overspend of public money is currently subject to a public inquiry; I do not intend to trespass on issues that are best dealt with in that inquiry. However, the Executive in Northern Ireland were collapsed by Sinn Féin under the pretext of what they claimed was the mishandling of that scheme. Early this year, a BBC Radio Ulster programme carried this topic for 56 consecutive days. The presenter of that programme, who just happens to be the director of Third Street Studios, used inaccurate and outrageous commentary. I will briefly give two quotes. He said:
“One of the biggest financial scandals to have ever happened in Northern Ireland: under the government’s watch, £400million of your money has been allowed to go up in smoke”.
He also said:
“What it means is that hundreds of millions of pounds of your money cannot go into schools, education, other departments in our country because the money has been squandered, the money has been wasted.”
This situation continued for a prolonged period until I appeared on the programme and confronted this deliberate misrepresentation. As the scheme had only just begun and was scheduled to last for 20 years, I asked why the presenter kept saying that the public’s money had been “wasted” and gone “up in smoke”. Only after my appearance, which was accompanied by strong letters of protest from my party to the BBC hierarchy, was the use of this reprehensible language stopped.
I have no objection whatsoever to any media organisation concentrating on events, particularly events of such import, but when it scandalously misrepresents things, as those comments and the comments of others did, and then the comments are changed after I and others confront the presenter about his misrepresentation, it proves that the BBC knows that it overstepped the mark in its initial comments. Nevertheless, I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. I have no quibble or argument with the BBC deliberating at length on the subject, but the issue was compounded by the presenter’s gross misrepresentation of the facts.
A substantial complaint about those inaccuracies was lodged with the BBC, and that is ongoing; the BBC has not yet comprehensively responded to the complaints, which are from eight months ago. The complaints process is obviously laborious and bureaucratic; for those who have not yet embarked on it, I can attest to that.
I will give another, very insidious example. “Spotlight” is an investigative programme in Northern Ireland that has won awards through the years. In October last year, BBC NI television broadcast an edition looking at people who had been victims of alleged shooting by police officers in the early stages of the troubles. It was critical of the police, and both serving and former officers were concerned about the one-sided picture that it portrayed.
Shortly after the broadcast, I was contacted by someone who informed me that the reporter who had conducted the interviews and carried out the broadcast on the BBC had been a serving police officer, so I wrote to the reporter in the following terms:
“I write to confirm some details regarding a recent BBC Spotlight programme. I would be grateful if you could answer the following questions.
1. Have you ever served as a police officer in Northern Ireland? If yes, please outline the circumstances that led to you leaving the police?
2. Have you ever been known by any other name than—”
And I named her. I continued: “If so, what?” My understanding was that she had married and that her surname had changed since the programme was broadcast. I continued:
“3. As the presenter of an investigative programme which was critical of the police, do you believe that you had a conflict of interest?
4. Did BBC NI ask you to complete the declaration of interest prior to this programme?
5. How much public money was paid to you for your services in that programme?”
The sixth question was the most critical:
“Does the below BBC News story from 10 years previously relate to you?”
That news story was about a serving police officer who was in court and faced a charge—not a terrorist charge. In his concluding remarks, the judge said to that police officer that she should have known better than to give her sister’s name instead of her name. He bound her over to be of good behaviour for a year on her own bond of £500, and warned her that she could forfeit some or all of that money if she breached the order. I am informed that the person who was in court subsequently left the police, joined the BBC and did a programme that was critical of the police. No explanation has been given as to why it is critical, or why that reporter did what she did. Did she state on a declaration of interest that she was a former police officer? Did the BBC know that and then allow her to do a programme that was critical of the police?
I leave you to guesstimate, Mr Bone, what would happen in the public arena if it was discovered, after I or anyone else in this House raised an issue, that we had an interest in it that we did not declare. That is why we, and the BBC, have declarations of interest.
I did not receive an answer to any of those questions. I did not even receive an acknowledgment. I submitted a request for this debate in March, but it did not go ahead at that stage. I asked the same questions, but did not receive a response then either.
Strange to say, this week, after I had applied for the debate a third time, I received a reply from the aforementioned Mr Mark Adair, who said:
“We have been made aware of your emails to a named BBC journalist”.
Nine months after I began this process, and 24 hours before a debate, I receive a response saying that the BBC has become “aware” of my emails! The reply continued:
“the BBC has robust arrangements in place to avoid any potential conflicts of interest…we would be grateful if you direct any future correspondence about BBC staff and/or policy to me or to our Directors Office.”
That avoided the question again.
The fifth and final area I wish to cover is declarations of interest. In Parliament, MPs, Ministers and civil servants are very aware of the need to declare interests and, as I said, the BBC also has a process for its journalists to declare any interests. When a constituent, using freedom of information powers, asked to see the declarations of interests of some BBC presenters and senior staff, the reply said:
“All staff are required to complete a Declaration of Personal Interests upon joining the BBC”.
That is good as far as it goes, but it went on to say:
“We will not be disclosing...because the information that you have requested is excluded from the Act because it is held for the purposes of”— guess what?—
“‘journalism, art or literature.’”
That seems to cover everything. When someone does not want to answer questions, they use the cloak of “journalism, art or literature”.
Many people have contacted my hon. Friend and me with concerns about so-called news programmes. The issue is that programmes often now straddle news and entertainment. Many members of the public have contacted me with the concern that a narrative and agenda is set, and then programmes set about getting participants who support that narrative, which is emphasised with key messages throughout the programmes. My hon. Friend makes a particularly important point about declarations of interests, because unless the public know what those interests are, we cannot scrutinise properly whether a public service broadcaster is carrying out its public duties appropriately—regardless of whether the producers are contracted in or not—being fair and balanced, and presenting the facts and all perspectives so that the public have the best opportunity to come to their own conclusions on these important matters.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. She is right, and we have noticed that the BBC—particularly in the last three or four years, for some reason—has become much more sensationalist.
I ask a straightforward question, which most people—even the BBC—should be able to answer: what is the point of having a declaration of interests, if no one knows what is in it? What is the point of that? Why would the BBC do that? Why would it ask people to declare any interests, but if anyone wants to find out whether somebody making a programme has an interest, say: “We’re not going to tell you, under”—the great catch-all—“the auspices of journalism, art or literature”? It is an entirely reasonable request that all BBC presenters’ declarations of interests be published.
I do not expect the Minister to be able to respond definitively today to every avenue that I have taken the debate down, but these matters need to be aired, so that the hierarchy in the BBC, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Minister are aware of what has happened and the lengths to which some of us have gone to try to get answers to straightforward questions. The bottom line here is that the BBC needs to radically alter the way it carries out its business—using our money. That is the point: it is using public money. Its procedures need overhauling, its lack of transparency is appalling, and the case for change was never more apparent.
It might be helpful for Members to know that I think five Back-Bench Members who wish to speak. I do not intend to impose a time limit, but the wind-ups will have to start at 2.30 pm.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate Mr Campbell on securing this important debate.
First, I welcome the fact that the BBC has this week announced an equal pay review. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for women in Parliament, and as a former member of the Women and Equalities Committee, I am profoundly passionate about ensuring that women are properly recognised for their abilities. I was therefore deeply disappointed that the BBC felt it appropriate to have such a large pay gap between its male and female employees, and frankly that it took them so long to notice it—we do have equal pay legislation.
I was, for a short time, the very proud owner of a BBC pass. I must put on record how much I enjoyed my time working in BBC local radio and how hardworking and committed all my colleagues were and, in the case of some of them, still are, particularly across local radio. It really was a wonderful time in my career. The hon. Member for East Londonderry mentioned the value of BBC employees and I was one of those foot soldiers—early starts, late hours, juggling work around young children, diverse and difficult shifts. We should remember that that is the backbone of the BBC and its staff. We hear about the fat cats, but there are a lot of people making sure that the BBC is true to its core values. I was honoured to work for this revered organisation.
One of the issues that I became aware of in my brief time at the BBC was how the diverse and wide-ranging nature of the broadcaster makes it difficult to know what the left hand and right hand are doing. In Government, I think we can all recognise that sometimes that is difficult, but there is a growing perception of a lack of transparency. That transparency is undermined by the way the organisation has grown and, in some ways, has had to reflect the internet and our changing media consumption and frankly, as we heard, fake news. The BBC, as we well know, has its challenges.
Let us turn to top talent; I do not think I could put myself in that category, but I always hoped someone would say that. Having previously worked in the broader media industry, I fully understand the importance for any broadcaster of attracting and retaining the very best talent—in particular, the pressure on the BBC—and pay packets should be able to reflect that. However, although I am an avid supporter of many of our media outlets, including the BBC, I am also aware that many talented women at the top of the industry are regrettably not properly recognised or rewarded by that institution. I trust that, through this process, that is going to change. In the broader industry, too many continue to work for free or for peanuts in the hope of a big break and of being the next big thing. We have to challenge our notions of how we get people into the media industry, what we expect of them and how we retain them.
Most surprisingly in this day and age, there is a huge disparity between the pay of men and women at the BBC, which has finally been highlighted by the senior leadership. We now have the chance to correct that, but one has to ask whether the BBC would have uncovered that scandal if it had not been for the Government’s transparency drive and the agreement reached through the BBC charter process. I am delighted that my party and the Government are not shirking the challenges ahead.
As I said earlier, I was delighted to sit on the Women and Equalities Committee; I would like the BBC to ensure that the review looks at diversity more widely, not just equal pay. DCMS is looking to do that across the media sector. We must also look at the support we give to older women in the industry. Channel 4 and other broadcasters have done incredible work on diversity, but can the BBC really look itself in the eye and say that it has stepped up on that issue across the board? This is the chance for it to do that.
For too long, even our most talented public figures have been deemed to have a sell-by date. However—let us be honest—that could not be further from the truth when it comes to the BBC’s Mary Berry. She is a prime example of the amazing talent—not least her cooking—that the BBC has at its disposal. I hope this is an opportunity to look at women with equal levels of talent. I have been listening to and admiring women broadcasters—they are broadcasters; the fact that they happen to be women is irrelevant—from afar on the radio. Gender has no relevance to how we remunerate people. We all admire Jane Garvey from afar, and she should be remunerated accordingly.
It is also important that older women in regional positions have a chance to shine. I worked in regional radio, and some people have committed a lifetime to it. We should recognise those people and support them through our national broadcaster. We should use the talent within the BBC to bring them to a wider audience. I have seen some progress. Some time ago, I worked with a wonderful mature lady who is now training as a continuity announcer. That gives me hope, because for broadcasters the fear of wrinkles and the looming feeling of being past it is scary. When I worked in the media industry, I was getting quite old for local radio, but here I am the youngest—well, not really, but in comparison. [Laughter.] I was an ageing commercial radio presenter, but I am a very young MP—how has that happened?
Once again, I congratulate the Government on the transparency drive that they introduced through the BBC charter process, which led to the BBC’s recognising and acting on the unjustifiable inequality at its heart. I believe that colleagues will agree that, if the BBC does that, it will continue to be a truly great British institution. We all have our failings, and the BBC must step up to address its. I will continue to be there to support it through that process. If it does that, it will continue to be in the hearts of the public across the land. What work are the Government carrying out to ensure that even greater transparency across the BBC and the whole of the media industry? Specifically, how can this debate and the Department’s work encourage the retention and promotion of older women across the media industry and promote a broader diversity agenda?
I am delighted to take part in this debate. In fact, given my majority of 249, I am delighted to be anywhere. It is a great pleasure to follow the very passionate and informative contribution of Mims Davies. I want to talk about three issues relating to the transparency of the BBC: the transparency of the regulation of the BBC, its finances and Northern Ireland.
The transparency of the regulator is absolutely important. Parliament and the Government took a really big step when they set up an independent regulator of the BBC—Ofcom. I was surprised over the summer to see that the Secretary of State had written to the regulator to say that she is rather in favour of more quotas for TV and radio content. A DCMS spokesman or spokeswoman said that a number of stakeholders had made representations —I do not know whether that was at Wimbledon or some other event over the summer. Perhaps the permanent secretary was away when that letter was sent, because that seems bad practice. The regulation of the BBC has just become independent in its totality, and we must have confidence in it. I hope the Government will exercise more restraint and will respect the regulator’s independence in the future, now that we have set that up.
On the issue of the BBC’s finances, pay gaps and so on, I welcome the fact that the BBC publishes an extensive annual report. It is now subject to the National Audit Office in its entirety, and there are many value for money surveys. The BBC is absolutely right to recognise that it has to press down on top pay—whether executive pay or talent pay. My scrutiny of the BBC’s accounts leads me to think that pay for the top talent is down by about 10% over the past year, and for the very top talent it is down by about 40%. Clearly, the revelations over the past few months have shown a completely indefensible gap between the pay of men and women.
Incidentally, which other broadcaster in the world would lead day after day on that issue, as the BBC did? There are only so many “Today” programmes about Jeremy Vine’s pay that someone can wake up to and take an interest in, but the BBC did that day after day. I do not think News International would focus on the pay of Sky presenters in quite the same way.
No, I was not aware of that. My hon. Friend has informed and educated me with that contribution.
In bearing down on top talent pay, the BBC has got to be aware of its own strengths. I take a great interest in sports rights. I think the BBC has got better at dealing with rights holders and saying, “We’ll give you lots of exposure, even if we can’t pay you as much.” It is the same with top talent. Gary Lineker, for example, gets an awful lot of money—perhaps a little too much money—and an awful lot of exposure. He is a cultural icon—a national treasure, some people would say. Compare him with poor old Jake Humphrey, who was on the BBC and has now disappeared to BT Sport. His Wikipedia entry says he was best known for presenting Formula 1 on the BBC seven or eight years ago. The point is that top BBC presenters get a lot of offers to host events, endorse products and so on, and the BBC must take that into account when negotiating top talent.
I just want to make a couple of other points under the general heading of finance. We have to recognise that BBC Studios has now been asked to compete for every TV programme. The whole of BBC output is open to competition, so BBC Studios will be just like lots of its commercial competitors in trying to get slots on BBC television. It should be subject to exactly the same rules as its commercial competitors. I hope that it retains an awful lot of the output, because if the BBC is to continue its training function for the industry and its creativity, it needs a big in-house broadcast capacity.
My last point about BBC finances is that I hope Tony Hall and the other BBC management will look closely—as the hon. Member for Eastleigh mentioned—at giving commitments to some of the foot soldiers in broadcasting about setting targets for bringing up pay at the bottom, as well as bringing down pay at the top. It is a sign of the times that the people at the bottom need to be considered—that is the zeitgeist among the political parties across the House.
I am obviously not as knowledgeable as Mr Campbell about BBC Northern Ireland. In fact, I like to sit behind the Democratic Unionist party in the main Chamber, because that is where the power really lies in this Parliament, and I like to know what is going on. I did once sit on the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, but I do not have the hon. Gentleman’s level of expertise. I have noticed all sorts of rows about BBC impartiality, including in Yorkshire. Last year I think he or one of his hon. Friends advocated the case for Carl Frampton, the Northern Ireland boxer who was excluded from the sports personality of the year shortlist. I feel the same about Joe Root, the great Yorkshire cricketer: that he should one day be BBC sports personality of the year—we all have such concerns.
Seriously, however—I will end on this—we should recognise that BBC Northern Ireland journalists have had a very difficult wicket over 30 or 40 years. They came under a lot of pressure during the time of the troubles, from Government, terrorists on occasion, political parties and so on, but they still produced—as I think they do now—high-quality journalism to inform the people not only of Northern Ireland, but of the wider United Kingdom and of the world beyond.
To conclude, it is very fashionable to decry the mainstream media, but I agree with the hon. Member for Eastleigh that the BBC is a cultural institution to be proud of: it inspires many people to take an interest in things that they would never otherwise know about; and it unites the nation and gives access to information in ways that would not otherwise happen. I have limited personal ambitions in this Parliament, but if it lasts for five years, we will then have reached 2022 and the centenary of the BBC, which should be a proud day for every Member of this House.
The BBC, as almost everyone would agree, is a unique and much-loved organisation, revered for so many programmes, such as news, gardening—I do not know whether that is sad—and, in particular, “The Archers”. I simply could not live without “The Archers” and, sometimes, I catch the same episode three times a week, because I hear the programme in the evening, again at lunchtime and then on the Sunday catch-up. That is how sad I am, but I love it.
The BBC, however, has to be held to account and to the highest standards because of the unique way in which it is funded, and we must do something when it is found wanting, so I am delighted that this Government are insisting on high standards, including of transparency and high quality. Part of reporting and programming is what the public expect and what they deserve. Clearly, the Government’s new insistence is giving the BBC a bit of a shake-up, which I think we would all agree is a good thing. The BBC charter implemented at the start of this year goes further than ever before in promoting fairness and transparency, and in ensuring the value for money that we deserve.
I wanted to touch on one of the points made by the hon. Member for East Londonderry on the commissioning of programmes. I had a crack at getting commissioned when I ran a production company. Frankly, I gave up. I wasted so much time going to the constant round of briefings on what the BBC wanted, might like or did not want—mostly what it did not want was the kind of thing I wanted to make—and logging in online. It all took up so much time that I gave up and devoted my money-making activities to other areas of the media, and many other independent companies did likewise.
Indeed, many I met when on the round of consultations and briefings turned out to be no more than hobby producers: they said they could not earn enough money simply from commissions to make life viable. I do not know if there is any way to address that, unless it is through more bidding for programmes—so perhaps it will be addressed now—but it is certainly something I noticed. I would like to think that the BBC charter and the Government will hold the BBC to account for such things, if we are to get more people into this very important creative industry.
My hon. Friend made a point about one thing that is close to my heart and that we have to careful about. I agree, totally, that we have to look at the BBC, but we must preserve its independence. That is what everyone appreciates about the BBC, so we have to be very careful when we bring the might of Government to bear, although I am pleased that we are getting involved. As Mr Campbell rightly said, programme makers sometimes come along with a narrative, and we very much noticed that in Jaywick in my constituency. The Channel 4 team—not the BBC—arrived with a preconceived idea of what they wanted to shoot. They wanted me to get involved in the programme, but they shot not what was there on the ground but only what reflected their preconceived narrative. The programme makers—
Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but we are pressed for time. I was pulled up for this when I first started; interventions have to be short, especially when we have such strict time limits. I am sorry.
Only this week I have faced the issue of preconceived ideas; I will mention this example. I launched my new environmental pamphlet from the Conservative Environment Network, which I thought would make an interesting and wide story. I encouraged my local BBC people to come to the launch, but they rang up to ask, “Will this be Rebecca Pow saying that the Government do not do enough for the environment?” That is what they wanted their headline to be—they had not even read what the pamphlet was about. I said, “Absolutely 100% not; it is the opposite of that”, so they did not come. That was a preconceived idea, but had they come, they would have discovered an interesting groundswell of an idea going on, which would have made a good and informative story for the public.
That is a matter for the Chair. Is there not some difficulty with what the hon. Lady is saying? She is putting the emphasis on the Government holding the BBC to account, but by doing so is she not undermining the proper role of Parliament and its Select Committee? Indeed, the Chair of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport is Damian Collins, her hon. Friend, and that is his job, not that of Government.
All I will say is that public money is funding the BBC, so we need to ensure that it is run in an effective way, with value for money and transparency, so that we get what the BBC was set up for in the first place.
I will move on and focus on the pay discrepancies that have been revealed, which have received a lot of media attention, and to which my hon. Friend Mims Davies referred. I am pleased that they are being highlighted in the debate. It is right that the BBC has taken action, but the proof will be in the pudding. I am pleased that the assessment and consultation on the issue have been launched this week, although it has got to be said that across the whole of the BBC there is a good balance of male and female—52% men and 48% women, which is pretty good compared with lots of other organisations.
Many years ago, I remember going to produce and present “Farming Today” on Radio 4, and I was only the second ever woman to do so. I will not tell the Chamber how long ago it was, because people might work out how old I am—
I will not respond to that. Now “Farming Today” has an all-female team—what a turnaround that is. When I went to the programme, farming and all that were considered very much part of a male world, so I applaud the BBC for a good thing.
Let us not be completely hijacked by the gender pay gap among those at the top of the BBC. I think most of us would agree that the high-profile women at the top actually are pretty well paid. It is wrong and scandalous that, on the whole, the men receive more, but in truth those women are quite fortunate. Let us not forget the many women all over the country whose unequal pay deserves just as much attention, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh mentioned. I commend the Government, who are doing more than ever to sort this out and make sure that we even up pay, which is still not equal enough across the board. That goes to the heart of the issue of publicly funded bodies. For example, in 2016, only 20% of permanent secretaries in the civil service were women. Perhaps we should look at the issue in a much wider context. We are holding the BBC to account; surely the same standards must be applied across the public sector.
I want to return, just for a minute, to the BBC and the gender pay gap. I venture to suggest—I mentioned this to the Minister earlier in the week—that all the attention on women and the gender pay gap has slightly clouded how much these high-profile presenters are paid overall, which I know many members of the public are questioning. Some are paid huge sums, and some people on the list do not put in that many hours for their pay. I will not name them, but one or two really make the blood boil. Some work very hard for their money, but the way the money is spread seems completely unequal.
The total budget for all BBC local radio stations—the hon. Member for East Londonderry raised this subject—is £152 million. That is not a huge sum of money for the phenomenal work they do and what we get back. That needs to be looked at, too. Some people at those stations—particularly the presenters who get up every morning to do breakfast shows—really are not paid very much. I have BBC Somerset right on my patch and I am a great fan; the people there work very hard. Obviously, they always try to hold me to account and catch me out, but that is their job. We get very good value from that. Local radio stations are constantly having to tighten their belts. That needs to be considered as well, because they provide an excellent service.
In conclusion, it remains for the BBC to address the problems we have highlighted, and the public expect that. I reiterate that I am pleased that the BBC announced its review this week. Let us not forget that the Government unleashed all this debate; they must be praised for that. I would like assurances from the Minister that the Government will still hold the BBC’s feet to the fire, because we expect fairness, equality and transparency, but above all good service and value for money for the taxpayer.
I thank Mr Campbell for initiating this debate.
Much has been said about transparency. It is astonishing that the BBC got away with—I use that term advisedly—not publishing the salaries that it pays to its highest-paid stars. As we have heard, even the salaries that are published are not the full and true picture, as many salaries are paid via production companies. Quite understandably, the public see that as a deliberate way of avoiding full transparency, and it is simply not good enough. Indeed, some people have said how suspicious it is that the BBC chose to publish those salaries at the point of a parliamentary recess to try, again, to avoid scrutiny and questions on the Floor of the House.
Surely the BBC—that liberal, trusted organisation—would not go to such lengths to avoid scrutiny. Surely that organisation can explain why it pays its male stars significantly more than its female stars. We are all waiting to hear why. Some people would say that the BBC could well explain those matters, but I contend that there is a crisis of public confidence in the BBC.
The problem is that people must pay the licence fee regardless of whether they view BBC programmes at all; there is no opt-out. That on its own should breed humility and respect for the licence fee payer, but for too many people it has instead bred arrogance and complacency—the same arrogance and complacency, many would argue, that allowed Jimmy Savile to stalk the BBC corridors uninterrupted despite the numerous complaints and opportunities to stop that serial abuser. A report that the BBC itself commissioned found that it actively shielded Savile, if not facilitated his abuse. Sadly, the organisation was also guilty of pulling a report that was to be broadcast on “Newsnight”, even though it knew all about Savile’s activities and the allegations against him. Journalist Meirion Jones alleges that he and the late journalist Liz Mackean were told that they would
“never work for the BBC again” if they co-operated with a “Panorama” investigation into the scandal, and he says that lots of efforts were made to block the “Panorama” programme, “What the BBC knew”.
The BBC is supposed to report independently, without fear or favour, but in the light of what I have just said, does it really sound like it does? Many people in Scotland are of the view that the BBC’s political coverage is significantly partisan. The BBC has repeatedly denied that, as we would expect, but it does not really matter whether it is true; what matters is that the people who pay the licence fee believe it to be true. That means that there is a problem. Even the newly appointed director of BBC Scotland, Donalda MacKinnon, has conceded that that perception exists, but without a detailed plan for rebuilding trust, I do not know what the way forward is for BBC Scotland’s political coverage.
There is no doubt that there is a deficit of trust in the BBC, which is seen across the United Kingdom as being resentful of public scrutiny, secretive, politically partial and complacent. The trust that has been lost absolutely has to be rebuilt. I suggest to the Minister that one way forward is for more of the licence fee money that is collected in Scotland to be spent in Scotland. Indeed, even Ofcom has said that that should be the case. Additional funding for delivering quality TV and radio output in Scotland would support the growth of our creative industries and be a real step forward. For every £100 million of production in Scotland, around 1,500 jobs are supported and £60 million is generated in the Scottish economy. That is quite significant. The BBC really has a job of work to build trust with people, and spending in Scotland more of the licence fee money that is collected in Scotland would be one way forward.
The BBC has a lot of sins in its past and there are a lot of things that it has to work through, but the future is not yet written; it can be different. It can be better, and the BBC can make it better. The BBC is a public service, and the public want a more transparent service.
Thank you, Mr Bone. I will endeavour to stick to your timetable. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
The BBC is one of those institutions for which there is widespread affection and support across the country, and it is highly respected worldwide. As a public service broadcaster, it plays an important role in our country. As our society has changed and moved with the times, so has the BBC—certainly in terms of its output. But we are not here to discuss its output, much of which is of course a matter of personal taste, although I must say that I consider its political content far too London-centric. What we are here to consider, though, is transparency. As we have moved to a less deferential and more open society, I believe the BBC also needs to move with the times. It should be more representative of and more accountable to the taxpayers who fund it, regardless of how much or little they use its service. With that in mind, a couple of specific areas need further examination.
The first, which has been touched on today and has been the subject of much media scrutiny in recent weeks, is the pay of top talent at the BBC, which revealed a huge gender disparity. What was also of interest to me, particularly in my capacity as chair of the all-party group on social mobility, was the background of those BBC top earners. The data released by the BBC on its top earners have been analysed, and for those in that category who are on screen, it is estimated that 45% were privately educated—a figure that rises to a staggering 60% when looking at news presenters and journalists.
That prompted me to write to the director-general to inquire about the educational background of the top earners off-screen. I received an impressive reply, telling me about all the things the BBC is doing to increase social mobility, but I did not get an answer to the question. The data that it did show me show that of what the BBC class as its senior leadership team, about a quarter were privately educated. That figure is not as high as for those on screen, but it is still well over three times what it should be, were the BBC to reflect the population as a whole.
It is also clear from the data that the senior leadership team is actually a much bigger pool of people than those earning more than £150,000, so the suspicion remains that those at the very top of the BBC—those on more than £150,000—are even less representative of the nation. It is clear the BBC is doing an awful lot at the entry level to improve social mobility, but that commitment has to go right to the top. I want to see transparency about the educational background of the top earners who are off-screen and a clear strategy to make sure that that section of its staff is more representative.
The other area of interest to me is more on the output side—but it is equally important. It stems from inquiries I made as a result of representations from a constituent who happens to be a professional musician who is concerned about the business relationship between the BBC and the arm’s length administrator of its music assets: a foreign-owned music publisher and supplier of music for broadcast and commercial outlets. He believes that the publisher not only makes considerable profit from administration of BBC assets but controls the supply of music to the BBC from its own resources. Now, I have no idea whether that assertion is correct—I very much hope that it is not—but the obvious, incontestable way in which the assertion could be tested is by the BBC setting out what its musical output has been. Sadly, I have not been able to get any answers on that. The BBC tells me that of course it does not operate in such a way, but it will not publish the breakdown that I have requested.
The BBC has put forward various reasons for that, with the most common one being the sheer scale of the exercise. I am, though, sceptical of that. How can it be that the BBC has no record of the music it transmits? Surely the confident assertion made to me by the director-general that it does not favour music from major companies ahead of smaller independent labels cannot possibly be left unchallenged unless he has assured himself with reference to the facts. I am sure that once he would have claimed that the BBC does not discriminate against women, but as we know the recently revealed figures on senior pay highlight a significant gender pay gap.
When the Minister responds, I would be grateful if he indicated whether he has any particular powers to compel the BBC to provide the information needed to establish beyond doubt whether its output is indeed as broad as is claimed. If he does not have such powers, does he agree that as the BBC is a taxpayer-funded organisation, it is in the public interest that it can demonstrate an even hand in its output? Does he agree that it is in fact in its interest to set out its output clearly and unambiguously?
In conclusion, again I reiterate my support for the concept and output of the BBC, but, like every other publicly funded organisation, it has a wider responsibility than simply the service it provides. Accountability and transparency must be at the heart of that responsibility.
In the interests of transparency, like the hon. Members for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) and Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), I, too, am a product of the BBC, having spent almost a decade of my career as a television producer there. I have many great memories from there, and indeed made good friends during an interesting career. The BBC has many faults, and I have never stepped back from calling it out on those, but I am a critical friend of the BBC who will defend absolutely its editorial independence.
I congratulate Mr Campbell on securing this debate. He raised important issues relating to complaints, commissioning, accuracy and honesty, and the gender pay gap. Although those issues mainly related to Northern Ireland, they do have a resonance across the UK, as we heard in contributions from the hon. Members for Eastleigh, for Keighley (John Grogan) and for Taunton Deane, and from my hon. Friend Patricia Gibson.
The hon. Member for Eastleigh spoke about the gender pay gap and working in BBC local radio. It says something if she is too old for radio, although I do not believe it for a minute. The hon. Member for Keighley talked about looking after those workers at the bottom of the pay scale.
I feel the pain of the hon. Member for Taunton Deane. Like her, I have experience as a struggling independent producer trying to get commissions. We have missed out on many excellent ideas from Oh! Television.
Order. I have been made aware that there is a sound failure, so Hansard cannot report. I can hear you and we can hear each other, and I do not want to lose the debate, so we will continue.
Slightly in jest, if one did reach that stage, one might put in some proposals to make programmes about one’s life here. Perhaps the BBC might find that entertaining.
I think it would have to be broadcast after the watershed.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran made an important point about how the BBC managed to get away with what it was doing in terms of the gender pay gap for so long. Transparency is absolutely essential. She also mentioned the discrepancy between what is raised in Scotland and what is spent in Scotland, and I agree that that is unacceptable and must be addressed as soon as possible.
We are living in an age in which society quite rightly expects—indeed it increasingly demands—transparency and openness as the hallmarks of our society. Anything and any organisation that benefits from the public purse has to be open and accepting of that scrutiny. As the hon. Member for East Londonderry said, we in this place, above all, are open to scrutiny and transparency. Going forward, the BBC has to expect those standards as well. At a time when it was emerging from a series of damaging historical scandals, with accusations of it being complicit and numerous attempts at cover-up, it was something of a surprise to many of us that the BBC should be so vehemently opposed to having to publish how much its top presenters earn. Indeed the then chair of the BBC Trust, Rona Fairhead, said that it was “disappointed” that it would have to change and that the decision on the disclosure of presenters’ pay was not, in her opinion,
“in the long-term interests of licence fee payers”.
Even the director-general, Tony Hall, questioned the merit of the Government’s decision, saying,
“this will not make it easier for the BBC to retain the talent the public love”.
“The BBC is already incredibly transparent.”
The much-fabled BBC insider fed to the press that it would be a “massive headache” for the BBC if it were forced to publish presenters’ pay. Indeed. Those were prophetic words, because that did give it a massive headache—but for very different reasons from those it first imagined. It must have thought that there would be a day of voyeuristic tittle-tattle in the office when it came out. It did not realise that that frenzy of indignation, which it thought would pass in 24 hours, would take on arms and legs in the way it has.
By forcing the BBC to reveal its salaries, it revealed its gender pay gap. It must have been living in some kind of time warp not to have realised what it was doing. The disparity between top-earning men and top-earning women is and was shocking. It is something that the BBC, as a publicly funded broadcaster, had no right to hide from the very people who finance the corporation. The BBC, as we have heard, is in a privileged and unique situation, and therefore it has to undergo a level of scrutiny far beyond those in the commercial sector. The gender pay gap, the scandal and the attempt to cover it up, at a time when the BBC’s popularity, particularly in Scotland, was on the wane, are mind-boggling. The decision to force the BBC to disclose its top salaries has been vindicated, because had it not, the gender equality issue would have remained hidden and unrecognised, and therefore unchallenged.
I realise that I am running short of time; I conclude by saying that the gender pay gap is not the only problem. I urge the BBC to look, as a matter of urgency, at the pay gap that exists within its own structures. What also emerged during this scandal was the massive pay gap that exists between the top and bottom earners within the BBC, with the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union reporting that 400 BBC employees earn less than 1% of its top-earning presenter. That is a scandal, and it should be addressed immediately. I look forward to the BBC taking it on and making a better job of that than it did of the gender pay gap.
At times this afternoon, the debate has felt like a reunion of former BBC employees. There have been certain complaints about BBC journalism, and at one point I thought we were going to hear the accusation that it was responsible for turning off the sound system and stopping our comments being broadcast to the nation—or the dozens of people following us on the BBC Parliament channel as we speak. Perhaps it is not dozens of people.
As many hon. Members have said, transparency is extremely important. Since I know Mr Campbell is digging deep on this issue, I should reveal my interest in the matter, which is in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I have received payments over the last year or so for my work as a musician from the TV channel Dave, which is owned by UKTV, which in turn is 50% owned by the BBC as part of its attempts to raise money from sources other than the licence fee, which of course it does in considerably greater amounts than it originally did. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He raised a lot of issues that I know he feels strongly about in relation to BBC journalism, and in particular the coverage of the issue that, as he pointed out, brought down the Administration in Northern Ireland, which we all hope will be up and running again soon. He raised points about transparency and salary, declarations of interest and other matters, including the vague answers he got to his questions from the BBC.
I will go on to make some positive remarks about the BBC as well, but I think it is better to give clear answers to Members of Parliament—they should be directed to the management, by the way—rather than the sort of vague answers that the Government routinely give to parliamentary questions. I would much rather the BBC answered questions directly, because a lot of the answers the hon. Gentleman gave from the BBC sounded like the sorts of answers I get when I table parliamentary questions. I do not know whether other hon. Members have had that experience when tabling questions to the Government, but I certainly have, and it necessitates further questions, freedom of information inquiries and so on.
Mims Davies spoke very well, as always, and said that—rather like the Government—the BBC’s left hand sometimes did not know what the right hand was doing. She rightly explained the importance of the BBC ensuring pay equality. One thing that came out in the recent publication of BBC staff’s salaries was the issue of gender inequality, and indeed other forms of inequality. It is absolutely right that that information should be published and made transparent, and that the BBC should take urgent steps to address the issue—as should other broadcasters that are not subject to freedom of information requests, and do not have to make an annual report to Parliament in the way that the BBC does. All those in the private sector should also be looking to ensure gender equality, and other forms of equality, when it comes to pay and personnel.
I have known my hon. Friend John Grogan for 37 years, and he has been top talent himself all that time. He made a good point about the exposure that high-profile BBC presenters get, and the fact that that has huge value, beyond the salary that they are paid. I completely agree. He also rightly pointed out the difficult job that journalists have had to do in Northern Ireland, and that we should remember that at all times.
Rebecca Pow told us that she could not reveal her age to us, despite this being a debate about transparency. I intervened on her, because we should be careful about the language we use when we talk about Government “holding to account” the BBC. It is worth reminding ourselves that the BBC is an independent organisation, established by royal charter. If we think for a moment, it is vital that it is not ultimately the Government’s role to hold the BBC to account for its journalism and impartiality, for example, because the Government are extremely partial themselves.
It is a dangerous thing in those countries where the state broadcaster is in effect controlled by the Government. We know the implications of that in countries such as Russia. We want a publicly funded, transparent BBC that is accountable. The proper ways for it to be accountable are: to us as politicians via Parliament and the Select Committee, which is ably chaired by a member of the hon. Lady’s party and has a number of my hon. Friends as members; and through, as my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley pointed out, an independent regulator, whose job is to make sure that the BBC fulfils its role under the charter, which is negotiated and in partnership with Government, and sets out that broad scope. That is the point I was making: it is a fundamental principle that we should not lose sight of.
Perhaps I did not express it well, but my point was that clearly that system was not working well enough, hence the Government had to step in to require more transparency, which is now having an effect.
We do not have time to rehearse exactly what happened and how all this came about, but I wanted to make that point with force.
Patricia Gibson said something that caused me concern; it was about whether the BBC’s reporting was perceived to be biased. She said—I think I quote her accurately; I am sure she will tell me if I do not—that it does not really matter whether it is true that the BBC’s reporting is fair and unbiased; all that matters is the perception. In other words, if she is saying that it is not about fake news but false perception, that is fine, but she seemed to imply that the perception is right, and that the BBC does not report impartially on politics in Scotland.
For clarification, my point is that it is a problem if the BBC’s paying customers do not have any faith in the way that it reflects their reality.
I do not have time to give way. Surveys of the public perception of BBC impartiality over time suggest the exact opposite. It is important that we stand up to the Donald Trump-like approach to media when it comes to the reporting of the news.
My hon. Friend Justin Madders made some fair and responsible points about the importance of transparency and accountability. Time is short, and there is so much more that one could say; I am sure that the Minister will say some of it. On this occasion, we might even agree on a few things relating to the BBC, much though it would pain him to admit it.
I make a general point about the BBC. We all have our criticisms of it, and we have all been victims of its vigorous journalism from time to time. It once named me on “Panorama” for accepting hospitality at an event that it had invited me to. When I pointed out to the BBC that its right hand literally did not know what its left hand was doing, I felt the pain that other hon. Members have in being taken to task in their role from time to time.
The BBC will make mistakes, but it is important that we remember that it is still genuinely envied and admired, and has a huge reputation across the world. In the words of Joni Mitchell, from “Big Yellow Taxi”:
“you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
In our quite appropriate debate about the transparency that is absolutely necessary for the BBC and the accountability it should have as a publicly funded organisation, let us not lose sight of the fact that it is an extraordinary British institution.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I am so sorry to have kept you away from the debate on the withdrawal from the European Union—a subject that I know is very close to your heart.
I would like to thank Mr Campbell for securing this important and over-subscribed debate about transparency in and of the BBC. He gave a number of examples of concerns with the BBC, many of which relate to specific accusations within BBC Northern Ireland. I am sure that the BBC has heard his concerns loud and clear; he was certainly transparent about his frustration. I understand that the BBC has offered to meet him, and I encourage him to take up that offer, but I also encourage the BBC to respond in substance to his concerns.
As many Members have said, the BBC is one of our most treasured institutions. I declare no financial interest, but I do declare that I love the BBC and think it is a very important British institution. It is an engine for creativity and growth, and I am proud of its role here and around the world.
The BBC receives £4 billion of public funding every year through the TV licence fee, which is a tax. As my hon. Friend Rebecca Pow said, the BBC, as a public service broadcaster funded by the public, must be as open and transparent as possible. The public rightly expect the BBC to be scrutinised effectively and to know how it spends our money—and I say “our” not as a Minister, but as a licence fee payer.
I strongly support the transparency that has been brought to the BBC through the charter settlement. It will improve the BBC and bring it into line with other public services, other parts of Government and, indeed, our politics, which has got radically more transparent in recent years. Improving efficiency and transparency was central to the charter review, and we have insisted on a whole series of changes in the charter to address these issues.
I agree with those who said we were right to introduce that transparency. Alongside it was effective, modern governance. It will be the responsibility of the new BBC board to deliver further transparency and greater efficiencies across overheads, including what needs to be done to lower the pay bill, where appropriate. The National Audit Office has become the BBC’s financial auditor for the very first time, as it is for the rest of the public sector. It will be able to do value-for-money studies on the BBC’s commercial subsidiaries, which return profits to the BBC, thereby generating public money. Of course, Ofcom is now independently regulating the BBC. A point that was brought up and has strong cross-party agreement is that it is important that an independent regulator regulates the BBC.
I was surprised at the comments of John Grogan, and by the Labour Front Bench’s opposition to seeing more diversity and distinctiveness at the BBC: we have had complaints by the Labour party about our calls for more diversity in the BBC. Of course I have a view on the level of diversity in the BBC, and I just wish the Labour party would join in. Where I do agree is that the BBC needs to look at pay across the piece, at all levels. I had much more sympathy with the point made powerfully by Justin Madders about the powers to insist on transparency for the BBC in other areas of diversity.
I did not say that it did so during the debate. It did when the deputy leader of the Labour party, the hon. Member for West Bromwich, wrote to us attacking our insistence on more diversity at the BBC. Maybe Kevin Brennan needs to have a word with his colleague and try to bring him into line. We are in favour of more diversity. At the moment, the Labour party is not, and I suggest it does something about that.
I think the hon. Gentleman needs to go and sort that out with his colleague. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston made—
I said West Bromwich because when I got to the end of saying it, I could not remember which I was referring to, but I was indeed referring to West Bromwich East.
Anyway, Ofcom has powers to insist that the BBC be transparent, and the charter gives Ofcom specific powers to consider the distinctiveness of music output on Radio 1 and Radio 2—not just the number of plays, but the size of the playlist and whether it is a peak or off-peak time. I suggest that the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston takes his point, which has a lot of merit, up with Ofcom, because it has those powers; the Government do not, for the reasons discussed during the debate.
The Government also require the BBC to disclose details on staff and talent where salaries are over £150,000. That was the meat of the debate today. The latest pay disclosure really shines a light on some practices that have been going on for a long time in the BBC, and not least on the gender pay gap, as discussed. I am very proud that we have introduced mandatory gender pay gap reporting for organisations with more than 250 employees, because that will help the organisations. I have an awful lot of sympathy with the statement put out by BBC women yesterday, which said:
That is incredibly important. In fact, I think that on issues of diversity and gender equality, we should hold the BBC to a higher standard, if anything, than other organisations, because it literally reflects the nation and broadcasts to the nation.
All of us who cherish and support the BBC must strive to make it more transparent and hold it to account. That does not weaken the organisation; it improves an organisation, because where there is a problem, sunlight is the best disinfectant. My hon. Friend Mims Davies asked powerfully what further will happen on transparency. Mandatory gender pay gap reporting for the BBC, as well as for other organisations, is due by April next year, and we expect the BBC to take action to close that gap, which it says is 10%.
Of course, it is not just about the gender pay gap. As my hon. Friends the Members for Taunton Deane and for Clacton (Giles Watling) said, it is about the level of pay. It is also about equal opportunities—people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds are under-represented among the BBC’s top earners—and transparency on social mobility, as the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston set out.
The BBC should be leading the way. I welcome the director-general’s commitment to closing the gender pay gap by 2020. I was pleased to hear yesterday about his plans for an independent equal pay audit of all BBC staff in the UK and a separate report on the gender pay gap. I look forward to seeing those reports in the coming months and expect to see an improvement on the gender pay gap and diversity in the next set of BBC accounts.
Transparency is the order of the day in this debate, so I am delighted that we heard of the music talent on the Labour Front Bench. I am sure that the hon. Member for Cardiff West is regarded by viewers of the Dave channel as top talent, and maybe one day we will see his name in the transparency returns. I agree with him on the importance of impartiality at the BBC and with his robust defence of the BBC against the accusations from some Scottish National party Members. I conclude today’s debate by thanking all Members for their lively contributions. I am sure that the BBC will be listening, and I am sure also that we will return to these important topics many times.
I am delighted that so many Members were able to take part in the debate. I thank the Minister for his response. I trust, as he indicated, that the BBC, at hierarchy level, will respond definitively to not only my questions, letters and emails but those of all other public representatives. We want to see a BBC of which we can be rightly proud—one that is independent, fearless and questions and pursues issues, but that is also transparent and accountable—so that people can defend the BBC locally, nationally and internationally.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the transparency of the BBC.