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The service is of considerable concern to the commercial media outlets. Representations have been made by local newspapers in particular, whose revenues are under pressure from the decline in advertising revenues, about which we have heard. It is important that a market impact assessment be undertaken on the
impact of the local TV service before we find ourselves setting up a tax-funded monopoly that crowds out other local outlets.
We are all products of the BBC, which I grew up with. One of my heroes was Brian Cant on Playschool, and I am sure that everyone was moved when John Noakess dog died on Blue Peter. I also remember when Nationwide flummoxed us all by giving us the impression that spaghetti grows on trees. We take an interest in the BBC not only because we are taxpayers, but because it has been part of our lives throughout the past few decades.
Why has the National Audit Office been ruled out of having an accounting profile in looking after the BBC? The Minister was asked twice to give an example of when the editorial content of the BBC would be challenged if the NAO were to play a role.
Although the debate has been thorough, we need another, because we have identified more questions than answers. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy) will reflect on some of those questions when he winds up. We still do not know how the trust will be made up, how accountability will be established, why the NAO will not have a role or who will pay the spectrum charge.
Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) has summed up our proceedings this afternoon by pointing out that the debate has raised more questions than answers. Judging by the list of speakers, the debate has been popular, and it is regrettable that they had so little time because the Minister took nearly an hour of Opposition time at the Dispatch Box.
The Minister has said that the BBC will get the settlement that it needs to deliver public service broadcastinga sentiment with which we can all agreebut without proper debate the charter review and licence fee settlement will not enjoy universal or even majority support. He boasted of the unprecedented consultation conducted by his Department, but are the Government and the BBC actually listening? We cannot have a proper debate
without openness and transparency, particularly in the definition of what actually constitutes public service broadcasting and in the detailed scrutiny of the figures and planning assumptions behind the BBCs application for an unprecedented increase in its licence fee.
Indeed, the Minister seems miffed that we have called the debate, which was warmly welcomed by my hon. Friends the Members for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) and for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) and the hon. Members for Bath (Mr. Foster) and for Eccles (Ian Stewart). It is no argument to say that the Government are calling a debate on the BBC next month, because that debate will cover only charter renewal and not the licence fee.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) has already mentioned the DCMS website, but the Minister failed adequately to deal with his point. The section of the DCMS website entitled BBC charter review states that the charter review is expected to be completed in mid-2006. It also states:
Mid 2006 Licence Fee level agreed
Mid 2006 Parliamentary debate on Charter and Agreement.
On 6 June, however, the Secretary of State, who was speaking to the all-party group on the media at a Channel 4 bash, said that the decision would be made towards the end of the year. Why did the media section of The Guardian state that that comment scotched speculation that a deal might be concluded before Parliament goes into its summer recess? The speculation was on the DCMS website. Mid-2006 does not mean October and November, but June and Julywhen Parliament is sitting, not when it is in recess.
The DCMS website gives the game away. Something has happened between the publication of that and what the Minister said today and the Secretary of State said at the drinks bash the other evening. The real reason is that the DCMS has been rocked by criticism from the independent commercial sector. The PKF report commissioned by the Department, which is yet again mired in an ongoing difference of opinion with the Treasury, concluded:
there are a number of areas which point towards a significant need for discussion in regard to the BBCs Red Book bid for the licence fee settlement for the next period. We consider that our detailed report contains specific information for the Government to progress discussions with the BBC which would point to a lower settlement than currently sought. There are, however, a number of areas, especially in relation to digital switchover, where figures can only be finalised following policy decisions by Government.
In his excellent opening speech, my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon called for several questions to be answered. We need proper scrutiny of the BBC through the National Audit Office, not the voluntary scheme that we have at the moment. What is the point of the NAO being told by the BBC when it can and cannot look into financial matters? The Minister said that the NAO should be involved in licence fee negotiations. Perhaps the Minister who responds could clarify what he meant by that. He said that there could
be an attack on editorial independence, but he did not answer a straight question and give some examples of what he meant by that.
Will the Minister confirm at the Dispatch Box next month, when we have the debate on the charter review, that all the figures featured in the Governments negotiations with the BBC will be public and transparent so that everyone can see what is going on? There has been a powerfully expressed view in the media that the bid offered by the BBC in October 2005 requesting the RPI plus 2.3 per cent. settlement presents no more than a superficial wish list of spending demands that is not grounded in adequate evidence or justification. The House of Lords Select Committee on the Review of the BBC Charter said that the BBCs costings were
rudimentary and could be significantly reduced...the BBC has admitted that the figure in the bid was based on the easiest calculation possible rather than on a real estimate of how best value could be provided.
costings used to support the investment programme are generally best estimates...in the past five years...the BBC...has delivered only marginal cash releasing organizational efficiency savings.
Several Members pointed out that the extra money going to the BBC in future might distort the marketplace and stifle innovation. My hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford said that it would crowd out competition and asked why Ofcom will have only a limited input in looking into BBC practices. According to the way in which the charter review is worded, the BBC Trust will act as both poacher and gamekeeper. Licences for online services seem to be lumped together whereas, as several hon. Members have said, each online activity should have its own specific licence.
A report published last month by the consultancy, Indepen, commissioned by ITV, said that the BBCs bid risked fuelling super-inflation in the recruitment of on-screen talent. It also claimed that the proposed above-inflation rise in the licence fee would hit lower-income families harder and contradicted the BBCs claim that the cost would fall as a percentage of disposable income.
I have had only 10 minutes and there is much more to say, but I need to leave 10 minutes for the Under-Secretarys winding-up speech. It is a pleasure to see the Secretary of State in her place. However, it would have been far better if she had been here at the start to deal with the Governments lack of response on the subject.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. David Lammy): The debate has been stimulating, and pre-empts the debate that we scheduled for next month. Some constructivebut also not so constructivecontributions were made on a range of issues.
During the charter review, we found a great appetite for discussing the BBC among the range of stakeholders and the public. It is clearly one of the nations most trusted and loved institutions, which touches the lives of almost everyone in the country. That appetite has been reflected in the breadth of debate today and the wider parliamentary and public discussion that has taken
place in the past two and a half years. Hon. Members will have another opportunity to debate the new charter and agreement in full. That will provide further openings for hon. Members to make their points.
The policies in the White Paper that are given life in the new charter and agreement provide for a strong BBC, independent of Government but accountable to licence fee payers. They provide for a BBC that will co-exist with a vibrant and dynamic commercial sector, which is the envy of the world. They also provide for a BBC that can continue to fulfil its role as a trusted guide, bringing the benefits of new technologies to audiences.
The BBC has always played such a role, from the earliest days of radio, to black-and-white and then colour television, to FM radio, digital television and radio and the internet. We have much for which to thank the BBC. In many ways, it has grown the market. That is why I do not agree with the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire), who contests the idea that Mark Thompson should be ambitious to ensure that the BBC competes with the best in digital and online services.
We have heard a great deal today from Opposition Members, especially the hon. Members for East Devon and for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), about a lack of parliamentary involvement in setting the licence fee. As my hon. Friend the other Under-Secretary set out in a compelling case, apart from the fact that Parliament has the right to object to changes in the licence fee, the process so far has been characterised by an openness not previously experienced under any Government. I remind Conservative Members that since the BBCs inception, most charter reviews have been conducted under Conservative Administrations. There has been more openness under the Labour Government than ever before.
The public have told us that they do not want Parliament to have more control than it currently has. That raises wider issues beyond the scope of the debate, but it means that the focus of the argument has been, rightly in the Governments view, on the public rather than the parliamentary sphere. However, in that context I pay tribute to the work of the Select Committee on the BBC Charter Review in another place, whose thorough scrutiny over a lengthy period has contributed much to the debate. I must not overlook the work of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, whose review in 2004, towards the start of the process of charter review, set the tone. We are especially indebted to my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), whose characteristically robust approach was of considerable influence.
Today, my right hon. Friend set out, in an insightful and intelligent speech, the opportunities and challenges that the BBC and the media more widely face as technologies change. We agree that the BBC must be able to respond and even lead the changes, to stay relevant to licence fee payers. It is also important that the BBC should not stifle growth and development in the commercial sector. These principles are at the heart of the new charter and agreement.
Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. For the benefit of the House, will you tell me whether I am right in saying that this debate does not have to finish at 4 oclock?
Mr. Lammy: I want to reassure the hon. Member for Bath that the new trust will be a powerful body that will have ultimate responsibility to the licence fee payer, as defined in article 9.3 of the agreement. Hon. Members have raised the issue of the delay in the announcement of the licence fee, but we have never specified the date on which we would make that announcement. We have said that this is an important issue and that it is right that we think about it clearly and work with the BBC and others to get it right. We will make that announcement in due course
Mr. Lammy: I have said to the hon. GentlemanI hope that he can understand Englishthat in the four minutes that I have available, I will not give way. I want to deal with the points that all hon. Members have raised.
The hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford raised the issue of the role of Ofcom and the BBC Trust in relation to the public value test. We recognise that Ofcom has a key role to play, in that it will provide the market impact assessments that will be an important element of the public value test. The hon. Gentleman says that he accepts that. The trust will be the body that is responsible for upholding the interests of BBC licence fee payers, so it is right that it should make the final decision about whether a new activity should go ahead. It must make such decisions objectively, after consultation, and it must publish the reasons for its decisions. The hon. Gentleman also
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am left with no alternative but to raise a point of order as the Minister will not let me intervene on him. He has raised a number of points, not least on the delay in the announcement of the licence fee. As you have heard, this was announced by the Secretary of Statewho has now honoured us with her presence
albeit at a drinks party rather than in Parliament. Neither she nor any other Minister has given any proper explanation as to why they were unable to attend this debate. I understand that the Secretary of State was at the lottery monitor conference this morning in London, but she was spotted at a nearby restaurant between the hours of 1 and 2 oclock, when she could readily have been attending this debate to do her job
The hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford raised the issue of the BBCs income increasing by £1 billion. Much of its additional income is due to its own efforts to reduce evasion and cut collection costs, which must be a good thing. Over the period, the range of services offered by the BBC has grown and licence fee payers and the public say that they support that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) gave an engaging speech about the importance of the BBCs move to the north-west to that region. Underlying his comments was his deep concern, as we would expect, with issues of social inclusion. We rightly welcome the latest indications from the BBC governors that they are serious about moving significant amounts of production to centres outside London. The governors announcement on 15 June to give Salford preferred bidder status
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