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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Shaun Woodward): This has been an extremely good debate. It has been as informed at times as it has been entertaining. I should declare an interest, as I used to work for the BBC, but unlike my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), I never had a long enough contract at the BBC to reach the dizzy heights of any provision for a BBC pension
The past 10 years have seen a transformation in the market in which the BBC makes and transmits its
programmes. The next 10 years will see a transformation or, more probably, a revolution. As the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) observed, that revolution comes because of on-demand services, the competition and the revolution not only in what we watch but in how we watch it, and in where we will demand that content. In such a revolution, this charter and the agreement work to set the framework for the BBC for the future. It is absolutely right that we spend so much time getting this right and ensuring that the level of the licence fee is absolutely right. Despite pressure for an expedient settlement by Opposition Members, the Government will work to do what is right for the licence fee payer and for the BBC and its competition.
Speaking of expediency [Interruption.] On cue, the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) asks the question, and I come to his contribution. His attitude to the BBC is, in itself, something of a dual transmission, bordering on two contradictory messages. On the one hand he values the BBC, and just as he auctions off his admiration he proceeds to bring his gavel down and hammer it hard with the other. On the one hand he says that he wants less regulation, and less interference, but then proceeds to offer the House a prescription for, in his own words, what more should be done.
The hon. Gentleman demonstrates little or no trust in the new trust to regulate the BBC, and he would do well to focus on the substance of the changes, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), who rightly described the change to the trust from the governors as a radical departure. This evening we note the views of the hon. Gentlemans party on regulating BBC salaries and setting ceilings on remuneration. We also notehon. Members could not really have missedthe Oppositions obsession with Jonathan Ross. They complain bitterly about his salary, yet they seem desperate to promote the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) on the programme. I can only ask, Mr. Speaker, that if the right hon. Gentleman seeks your advice on what to wear on a future Jonathan Ross programme, you will tell him to leave his hoodie at home.
If the debate offered us insight into Conservative obsessions this evening, it also offered us a brief glimpse into contemporary Conservative party policy-making. We were treated this evening to a new policy from Conservative Members as they put forward their policy for a free television licence for all students. It was interesting for us to see that emerge in the double act performed by the hon. Members for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) and for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski). All I can say is that we will cost their new proposal with relish.
Listening to the hon. Member for Wantage is always a delight, no matter where it takes the listener. We have travelled far and wide with him this evening across a broad range of subjects. At the end of the day it was really in the hands of the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford, the Select Committee Chairman, to give us the sober and serious considerations of policy this evening. He concerned us with points of real substance rather than a relentless preoccupation with
the luncheon engagements of the Secretary of State and drinks parties to which he might not have been invited.
I should begin by reassuring the hon. Gentleman that the public value test will make a significant difference to the way in which the BBC operates in terms of future services, and despite the temptation on his part to suggest that the BBC would be moving into the business of antiques dealing or car dealing, I see absolutely no reason for it to move in that direction.
Mr. Woodward: It is a pleasure to see the hon. Gentleman, who I do not think has been in the Chamber for the debate this afternoon; none the less, as we have time, I am more than happy to take his question. The answer is that if the BBC believes that it is a service that would serve the public well, yes. But I remind the hon. Gentleman that the new codes set out by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in the agreement and in the charter will be looking for public value tests. That is a new and important departure. Indeed, in answer to the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford, the policies put forward in the Green Paper and confirmed in the White Paper, the charter and the agreement are firmly based on extensive consultation and research. The policy on governance is built firmly on the principle set out by Lord Burns and the independent panel. The policies on service licences, the public value test and the new competition framework reflect and recognise the concerns expressed most notably by the commercial sector.
The hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford asked about market impact assessments. The agreement makes it clear that the content of the MIA is for Ofcom alone. The main role of the joint steering group is to agree terms of reference and a timetable. That will help to ensure that the market impact and public value assessments are compatible and enable the trust to make judgments on whether a proposal should go ahead.
The hon. Gentleman asked about there being a limit to the BBCs commercial activities, which has understandably concerned several hon. Members. There will indeed be a limit. Its commercial activities must comply with the criteria for commercial services as set out in clause 69 of the agreement. In particular, they must fit with the BBCs public purposes as embodied in the charter.
The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) asked about increasing the target for audio description. While I am happy to write to him on that subject, I can reassure him that Ofcom is reviewing its statutory code on television access services, and we expect a response to that later in the year.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherds Bush (Mr. Slaughter) was right to talk about the BBC, as it sits in his constituency and he looks after White City. In response to his broad question about the Governments objectives for television and radio, they are entirely the same
namely, to create the best programmes, for the best value, for their respective audiences.
The hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) began by giving a somewhat gloomy forecast about the BBC being too London-centric. I do not agree with that, but I enjoyed everything that he said. It is not often that Lord Reith and Abba are thrown into the same sentence, but he managed it. The hon. Gentleman referred to not wanting to hear services from elsewhere that do not relate to Wales. The future of the BBCs digital services should go some way towards dealing with that. With the prospect of people being able to enjoy up to 300 channels via all sorts of new services that come about as a consequence of digital services and convergences within digital services, he will increasingly have greater choice of local services. He ventured to criticise the BBCs work in advancing digital services. I believe that the pioneering and innovative work that it is doing will deal with those criticisms and satisfy many of his constituents.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) rightly observed that the debate resembled Points of View. He talked about working conditions. I would be happy to look with him at a survey of working conditions published a few weeks ago in Broadcast magazine. It reveals some areas that we would do well to consider, particularly in relation to women returning to the workplace after they have had children, and to young people. In a field where there may be 200 applicants for every job, young people often find themselves working long hours in difficult conditions for no money whatsoever. That argument does not specifically apply to the BBC, but across the board in the broadcasting industry. I was well aware of those conditions when I worked in the television industry in the 1980s, and I think that they still exist. As television grows and competition increases, there may be pressure to drive down the salaries of those working in the industry. We should work together to address that. I would welcome working with my hon. Friend and the unions on that matter.
My hon. Friend also mentioned the proposals for a window of creative competition, which aims to generate 50 per cent. of production from the BBCs in-house capacity. A further 25 per cent. will be open to competition, including from BBC in-house producers, and there is also the statutory 25 per cent. guarantee. The implementation is up to the trust, which will doubtless take account of his concerns.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham raised several issues. I hope that, at the end of the evening, he will change his mind and not abstain. I accept that his questions are reasonable and that his views are sincerely held, but we disagree with some of his conclusions. Although those views are held by some, we did not find them in the substantial body of work that we conducted with licence fee payers. Indeed, they were prepared to pay even more for the BBC.
However, if licence fee payers were to pay more, they would want value for money and efficiency to be requirements of the BBC and those running it. The
Government should meet those requirements in sorting out the charter and the agreement and settling the licence fee. I urge my right hon. Friend to consider whether abstaining best serves the interests of the BBC and the licence fee payer. Conservative Members view of the BBC is clear. Although they claim to support it, they are prepared to undermine it at every turn. I therefore ask him to reconsider.
The speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen) moved all hon. Members, and the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) rightly picked up on it. My hon. Friend reminded the House of the BBCs role in entertainment, and his love of sport, including football, is well known. However, he also shared with us his experiences as somebody who could not be persuaded to go to university but gained much of his education through the BBC. I am sure that many hon. Members know exactly what I mean when I say that the BBC has served us all well in terms of our collective education. My hon. Friends characteristic remarks were self-effacing, generous and absolutely right. I only hope that Opposition Members pay as much attention to them as to their obsession with Jonathan Rosss salary.
My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) made a fine speech, as perspicacious as it was welcome. He was right that decisions about BBC programmes are best made by the BBC and nobody else. He is also right that the public need the confidence of knowing that the settlement of the licence fee will be properly handled and effectively audited. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has those arrangements in hand.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) spoke of his admiration for the BBC. He was right to talk about its role in a fragmented world. He spokeat moments, in a Leavisite wayabout a common culture. I thought that he might start telling us about a common pursuit. However, I suspect that his remarks will be remembered as much for his French colloquialismin case you have not heard about it, Mr. Speaker, I am sure that the hon. Member for Wantage will sneak up to you later and give you full particularsand his fond recollection of Yes, Minister as for the rest of his comments.
That brings me to the Liberal Democrats. They asked whether we had squared the respective circles of efficiency and quality. The answer to that is yes. They viewed it as a weakness of Michael Grades that he could understand criticisms of the BBC. If one can see ones weaknesses, that is a strength and we should give Michael Grade credit for his extraordinary work in leading the BBC in the past few years. The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) asked whether the trust would be effective and whether we would trust the BBC. The answer is that we will, as the public do.
If I have misunderstood the hon. Gentleman, I apologise. I believe, however, that he was
saying that there were criticisms and that Michael Grade was far too quick to recognise them.
It is absolutely right to get the licence fee right, and the charter and the agreement have to be right. It would be a huge mistake to behave in a political way with the BBC simply to satisfy the thirst of the Conservatives to have a number before the summer recess. This is an important settlement for the future of the BBC and for every licence fee payer.
One thing that has come out of this debate loudly and clearly is the regard in which the BBC is held by everyoneincluding most Members of this Houseacross the four nations. We are all aware of the extraordinary rate at which the broadcasting environment is changing, but as we said in the White Paper, none of us can afford to lose sight of the fact that public service broadcasting remains an essential part of the media landscape.
The next charter and agreement must provide a framework that will enable the BBC to remain in the pivotal broadcasting role that it has enjoyed in the past while ensuring that it has the ability to adapt to new challenges and to remain at the heart of public life. That is why this charter review has been the most thorough and open review ever.
Mr. Woodward: I will give way, but I will say to the hon. Gentleman that, in the last debate that we held, he refused to give way to me when I had the opportunity to correct a deliberately misleading impression that he had created about my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I will give way to him, but I do so in the spirit of taking up the thoughts of his party leader, who has said that he wants to end yah-boo politics, even though Conservative Members still continue the practice.
Mr. Moss: I am most grateful to the Minister for giving way. Before he finishes, I would like to put to him a question that my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) and I have both asked. Will he give the House a figure for the assistance package for digital switchover? If he cannot give us that figure, will he give us a guarantee that we will have that figure before the licence fee is announced?
Mr. Woodward: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I know that all hon. Members are concerned about digital switchover and targeted help. We are in the final stages of negotiation with the BBC on this matter. When we publish the licence fee figure, we will also publish the details of the targeted assistance scheme. In so far as I can, and if it is prudent to do so in the course of the negotiations with the BBC, I will assist the hon. Gentleman with information about targeted assistance for his constituents and those of all hon. Members. However, he will have the figures that he has requested when we publish the licence fee.
This charter review has been the most thorough and open review ever in the history of the BBC. This is a crucial moment in the review process; the agreement with the BBC has been made and now awaits the approval of the House. The charter will be sent for
approval by Her Majesty in Council. This is a new phase in the evolution of the BBC, and I urge the House to support it.
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