Previous SectionIndexHome Page

11.48 am

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes): I welcome the Secretary of State's sensible and thoughtful speech--it seems a long time ago now--and I am glad to see that he is still in the Chamber to hear contributions from hon. Members. I am struck by the degree of common purpose across the Chamber. In particular, the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) and the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) made useful contributions.

New vistas are opening up, and the potential that digital television and radio offers is substantial: whether it is high-definition television, wide-screen pictures,

29 Oct 1999 : Column 1237

CD-quality sound, video on demand or the era of convergence, to use the phrase of the right hon. Member for Gorton. Although I welcome the conditions that the Secretary of State has set--94.4 per cent. of households being able to receive a digital signal, the necessary equipment being affordable to all and 95 per cent. of households having access to digital television--I query that last criterion, as I did when I intervened in his speech. I am not convinced that rendering the televisions of 1.25 million households obsolete at a stroke will be acceptable.

The Secretary of State said that he expected the last 5 per cent. to receive direct help from the broadcasters to change over. Frankly, I am not convinced that that will happen, unless the Government require it. The last 5 per cent. are likely to be the poorest in society. They are the least attractive to advertisers, so there will be no incentive for anyone to help those 5 per cent. unless the Government require it.

Mr. Peter Atkinson: The point that the hon. Gentleman is missing is that the value of the analogue channels will be limitless. They will be worth billions of pounds. I suspect that, if the industry realises that it is being blocked from being able to use those because of 5 per cent. of people, it will find an easy way to get them new television sets.

Mr. Baker: I accept that there is commercial pressure in the opposite direction. Nevertheless, I think that the Government will have to intervene to ensure that all persons in this country have access to digital television. It will not happen by market forces.

I make it plain on behalf of the Liberal Democrats that we are not in favour of the digital poll tax--the £24 supplement that has been suggested in the recent Gavyn Davies report. The BBC has enough money to pay for its digital services itself. We have heard how it is awash with money in certain respects. In 1996, it told a Committee of Members of Parliament that it would fund the lion's share of its digital investment from increased efficiency and the contribution from its commercial arm. Since then, it has received above-inflation increases in the licence fee. The 1998-99 report and accounts show that it has £235 million in the bank.

There is no question but that the £24 supplement is not required. Furthermore, as other Members have made clear, it would act as a disincentive to take up the technology. In 1996, John Birt told the Select Committee on National Heritage that it would be "a tax on innovation". It is the only time this morning when I shall agree with him. I hope that the Government will not go towards the digital poll tax. It would be entirely wrong for all sorts of reasons, and quite unnecessary.

I pick up a point that the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) made--I think it was him; I hope it was--about subtitles. [Interruption.] He is shaking his head. Perhaps it was the hon. Member for East Surrey. According to the Broadcasters Audience Research Board, 5 million people rely on subtitles for television programmes, but digital satellite and cable channels are not required to subtitle at all, and digital terrestrial is required to introduce subtitles only at a very slow rate over a number of years.

29 Oct 1999 : Column 1238

If we are to see benefits from digital television, that issue will need to be addressed by the Secretary of State. I do not think that commercial pressures will achieve that. The Government will have to intervene.

The Secretary of State referred to the BBC's duty to provide a quality benchmark. It is a sensible comment and I concur with it, but there is a potential problem. As the range of services from digital television and range of providers increases, that necessarily lessens the BBC's market share; it would be extraordinary if it did not. John Birt himself suggested that the market share of BBC1 and BBC2 would drift down over the years.

If that happens, it will put pressure on the licence fee and more and more of our constituents will say, "Why should we pay our licence fee for a market supplier that is now capturing less of the market?" That, in turn, will put pressure on quality programming because the BBC will be tempted to respond by going down market and getting more and more game shows: more and more Jeremy Beadle-type programmes. That would be an entirely wrong response. The position would be very difficult. Politicians will be required to defend the BBC if it sees a decline in market share but sticks to quality programming. There will be pressures to resist.

The BBC is like the European Union. It is necessary, we are all much enriched by it, but that does not stop me feeling exasperated by some of its idiocies and extravagances on occasions. For example, Sir Christopher Bland has admitted that the BBC spends £22 million year on consultants. He said:

I wonder whether it is a case of what the consultants are looking into, because I am not aware of their producing any recommendations that have improved the BBC greatly.

Then we have the common excesses, which are indefensible. John Birt's farewell party was referred to in passing by the right hon. Member for Gorton. On 1 November, 150 BBC worthies will be given a jamboree, to cost £50,000--that is equivalent to 495 licence fees--to be held at Hampton Court palace. He is, I understand, to receive a pay-off of £150,000, which is equivalent to 1,485 licence fees, as a golden goodbye.

The evening will start with a reception in the Great Watching chamber, which was used by King Henry VIII, perhaps not inappropriately, to entertain his barons. The charge for renting the room is substantial: £7,050 per evening, with an additional fee of £45 for each guest after the first 100. Catering is extra, needless to say.

The main event will take place in the Great hall, costing £10,575 per evening. It is a lovely hall, decorated with Flemish tapestries. Of course, the BBC Symphony orchestra and the BBC Singers will be on hand to entertain the guests.

That is all very nice, but it is all licence fee payers' money. I get letters from constituents saying that £101 is a lot for a licence fee and that we should look at how the money is spent. A huge amount is being spent on a farewell bash for John Birt.

Governors' pay in 1999 is £264,000; that is equivalent to 2,614 licence fees. Pay checks for executive committee people total £3,051,000 for 1999; that is equivalent to 30,200 licence fees. Sir John Birt's pay topped £400,000 this year after a generous increase in his salary of 7.2 per cent., well above the rate of inflation.

29 Oct 1999 : Column 1239

I am staggered by some of salaries at the BBC. John Birt's is £415,000. Colin Browne, the head of public relations, receives £210,000; he seems to have failed miserably in his job, at least as far as convincing me is concerned. Patricia Hodgson, head of strategy, receives £207,000. Margaret Salmon, head of personnel, receives £216,000. None of them is a broadcaster or journalist producing programmes. They are management. They are the ones who occupy Broadcasting house and have pushed out all the journalists, who are somewhere in White City now.

Broadcasting house is singularly inappropriately named, in that there are no virtually no broadcasters in it any more; they rattle around if one goes there. The right hon. Member for Gorton mentioned the chit-chat machine.

Of course, we can be reassured because the BBC says in its statement of promises to viewers and listeners, 1999-2000:

So that is all right then. We need not worry about all the excesses, because the BBC is being run in our interest with no waste of money.

I am pleased that Greg Dyke, who will shortly be taking over, seems to be sceptical about some of the expenditure. He is reported to be selling the country mansion used by staff for weekend breaks and cheap wedding receptions, and targeting limousines for BBC executives that cost up to £1 million a year--that is, 9,900 licence fees. He might also ask himself why John Birt's wife has a 4.6 litre Range Rover at the expense of the BBC. I hope that such grotesque expenditure will be cut.

Many of us want to defend the BBC. We strain to do so because we believe in it, but it would be a lot easier without such indefensible expenditure. The BBC needs to provide good value for money. If it is going to produce quality programming with a declining market share, it needs to avoid being open to attack on the issues that I have just attacked it on.

We might also look at BBC News 24--so called because that is the number of viewers that it normally has at any given time. It is a grotesque waste of money. I am profoundly irritated--as many hon. Members may be--when I find that BBC local radio stations are run on a shoestring. There is no money for anything in BBC local radio these days, yet money is being poured down the drain on BBC News 24.

I am also worried about the BBC World Service, which does not come under the Department for Culture, Media and Sport because it is funded by the Foreign Office. Despite reasonably helpful funding from the Government, the World Service has suffered unacceptable cuts that do nothing to improve the image of Britain abroad.

Next Section

IndexHome Page