Switch on, tune in and grow.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen) pointed out earlier, one of the great things about the BBC is that it can interest people in things that they never realised that they were interested in, and long may it be so.
Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): It has been a great pleasure for me to sit next to my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey)a great manand to listen to the debate on the BBC this evening. I must, however, pick up on the point made by the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherds Bush (Mr. Slaughter), when he tried to paint the picture that Labour Members were pro-BBC and that the commentary from Conservative Members was somehow hostile to the BBC. Anyone outside the House who reads Hansard will know that the debate has been very even-handed and that positive, constructive and critical points have been made by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Certainly, in my speech, I intend to be both positive and critical of the BBC.
The best thing that I have come across during the debate was a comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley), when he stated that licence fees for students in halls of residence should be abolished. I totally agree with him. Why should students living in halls of residencepeople who have little enough money alreadyhave to pay licence fees? That is certainly something that I shall take away from the debate, and I hope to secure a Westminster Hall debate on the subject to try to convince the Government to abolish such fees for students.
Another argument that my hon. Friend might deploy in trying to woo the student vote relates, of course, to the fact that so few students now watch
television. That is not to say that their minds are on higher things; they simply spend all their time on the internet now.
The right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) spoke extremely well in the debate. Like me, he is of Polish origin, and I know from speaking to him that he played his role in supporting Solidarity in Poland in the early 1980s. I also know that the BBC played its role in the overthrow of communism not just in Poland but throughout eastern Europe. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of speaking to relatives in Poland who tuned into the BBC, late at night in the darkness of their homes. Of course it was illegal to listen to foreign broadcasters in those days, but the BBC still brought great hope to many people who were under communist tyranny, for which I thank it, as I am sure many other people do.
I praised the BBC in the debate a few weeks ago. I am pleased that many hon. Members have saluted the BBC this eveningit deserves itbut the right hon. Member for Rotherham made a very good point when he suggested that there should be a register of interests for BBC journalists and executives. I found that point very interesting. Hon. Members try extremely hard to be beyond reproach and to register all our interests, and senior people in the BBC, who also have such a public role, should declare their interests.
I shall mention two issues that I feel very strongly about and which have already been raised in this debatethe first being this man called Jonathan Ross. My wife and I watched his television programme at our home in Shrewsbury and I was appalled by thishow can I describe him?cad and bounders interviewing the leader of my party in the most gratuitous and appalling way. I took great exception to Jonathan Ross ridiculing in a very public way a very important historical figurean 80-year-old lady who is no longer in public life to the extent that she was. I found it totally unacceptable that somebody in the BBC could speak about her in that way. I very much hope that the BBC is listening not just to me, but to other Members who have spoken out against Jonathan Rosss behaviour.
The second issue is religion, which has been briefly mentioned already. As a Roman Catholic, I sometimes get genuinely very upset by some of the critical ways in which religion is covered. It is occasionally covered with a great deal of disrespect in modern life, particularly on television. Catholics do not always jump up and down when they are offended, but that does not mean that we are not offended. In future, the BBC needs to think very carefully about how it criticises religion. There have been many vociferous protestations from members of the Sikh communityand otherswhen their religion has been denigrated in some way.
Locally, we in Shrewsbury listen to BBC Radio Shropshire, which I must say is an excellent station. It is impartial and balanced and the quality of its local news is exceptional. It keeps people updated, particularly the elderly and those in remote rural areas who cannot get around. In preparation for my speech, I
spoke to some senior citizens who live in Halfway House, in a very rural part of my constituency. They wanted me to make the point that they benefit greatly from local radio, particularly those who live by themselves and are lonely.
Before todays debate, I was grilled on Radio 4s Farming Today about various issues that I am raising as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on dairy farmers; the interviewing was very robust. When we politicians are interviewed, reporters are robust, which is healthy for our democracy. I get frustrated by John Humphrys when I think that he is being rude or unfair to a colleague, but such harsh scrutiny is important. My concern is that if it is excessiveas Mr. Humphrys has been in certain casesit could put people off and stop politicians going on such shows.
I am concerned about the growing number of occasions when very junior Ministers are put up for interview, rather than a Secretary of State. In fact, on many occasions now, no Government spokesman is available to speak to the BBC, which presents a very bad image to the public. The BBC and the Government have a duty to ensure that there is always representation from the highest levels of government to counteract and answer questions. Ministers must realise their duty to appear on hard-hitting interview shows, such as Newsnightwhich has been referred to as Newsnichtwith Jeremy Paxman. I rarely see the Prime Minister being interviewed by hard-hitting interviewers; he tends to go for the softer, easy options.
There has been little explanation during this debate of the governance of the BBC, yet that issue is of the utmost importance; I hope that the Minister will talk further about it when he sums up. During the tragedy surrounding Dr. Kelly, the BBC governors acted very badly. I would argue, controversially, that many were not up to the job. Chaos reigned at the BBC when the Government turned up the heat on that organisation. As other Members have stated, we need governors who will stand up to Governments of whatever colour, and who will stand up for the independence of the BBC. The BBC Trust and executive body need to represent real people and be independent. How will they be chosen? What remit will they have? I hope that the Minister will respond to those questions.
The auditing of the BBC must be far more open to public scrutiny, and Members of the House have a role to play in that. I hope that the Minister can also provide a glimmer of hope about that. On the licence fee, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) that continuous above-inflation increases are unacceptable. The House of Lords has recently recommended that licence fees should not increase beyond the rate of inflation. I believe that Parliament must vote on licence fees if they are significantly above the rate of inflation.
During the previous BBC debate, I spoke about how my wife and I enjoy romantic costume dramas. We believe that there should be more of those on the BBC. This evening I am going to speak about childrens programmes. My wife and I are expecting our first child in October, and are looking forward to it very much. We are very concerned about the state of childrens programmes. With our forthcoming child in mind, we watched some BBC childrens television programmes on Saturday, and I was appalled by the
violence and aggression shown, both between children and from outside groups towards children. I was absolutely amazed. In my day, we learned to make things while watching childrens programmes. [Laughter.] It was all very innocentLabour Members laugh, but it was. That is what children are meant to watch. The programmes now have a lot of violence and mindless aggression. I hope that the BBC will take note.
The speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, was excellent. I strongly encourage the Minister and the Government to listen to the comments of someone of such quality and experience. I must disagree with him on one point, however. He said that the BBC should not get involved in television and radio in foreign countriesbut I believe that such involvement is a good thing. We must challenge the global television empires and networks being built up by media tycoons. One way to do that is for the BBC to start branching out to other parts of the world, such as India and China. I would like the BBC to operate more in China, which is a great opportunity and growth market for our businesses.
Many British institutions are so popular globally and have such a good brand that we can export them abroad. For example, Shrewsbury school is so popular with foreign students that a Shrewsbury school is being opened in Bangkok, because so many Thai people want an English education. So, too, our British Broadcasting Corporation should branch out to bring our perspective to people around the world and to promote our way of life.
I have sat through the whole debate, and it has been like an elongated version of Points of Viewabsolutely fascinating. I must admit that at one point, having drifted off, I was woken by the Kenneth Tynan moment when my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) intervened. On another occasion, I was roused by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter), representing what is now described as cognitive capitalism.
As secretary of the all-party National Union of Journalists parliamentary group, I am aware of a number of worries about the new agreement for BBC staff. Throughout the debate we have all extolled the BBCs virtues, such as the high-quality service that it provides. It has been suggested that it should expand into different parts of the world, become involved in different services, and link up with the private sector in future joint operations. I think we can all agree that the BBCs quality is based on a long tradition of high-quality professionalism among its staffa professionalism that has given us world-leading programmes and a service that is second to none, described in the House on other occasions as a jewel in the crown of public services.
Discussions with staff have revealed fears that the new agreement will threaten their jobs and
professionalism and undermine their skills. They are concerned about the intervention of Ofcom and the development of the window of creative competition, or WOCCDoctor Who has been mentioned, and its scriptwriter must have hauled that one off the screen as wellabout their non-representation on the trust, about the grotesque top salary increases, and now about advertising on the World Service.
We have heard a good many anecdotal suggestions today that if Ofcom did not intervene, the BBC would somehow crowd out private sector services from the market. However, no concrete evidence has ever been produced in any research study by Ofcom itself. An Ofcom study that did take place in 2004 concluded that there was not
sufficient evidence to prove or disprove the existence of overall crowding-out.
Now that Ofcom is included in the agreement, market impact assessments must ensure that there is complete transparency. In my dealings with Ofcom in the NUJ parliamentary group, I have not found its role in seeking to protect public services in the ITV system to be particularly effective. We have had a number of debates in the House in which, on a cross-party basis, we have raised issues with Ministers about the loss of local production, and in particular the loss of local news services through ITN, as a result of Ofcoms failure to fulfil its task and to display any teeth in controlling the cutting of such services by the private sector.
Ofcom will be one of the organisations that the BBC will be required to consult on codes of practice in any area where competition may arise. Let me issue a plea for full and adequate consultation with the trade unions representing BBC staff in the discussions that Ofcom undertakes with the BBC, especially as the process may result in the loss of their jobs. I am not sure why the Government have taken the Ofcom route when the BBC is already subject to competition law and the operation of the Office of Fair Trading. I do not understand why a special regime is needed for the BBC, as opposed to other public services.
As for the window of creative competition and the potential increase from 25 to 50 per cent. in television services going to the private sector, the concerns expressed by staff need to be examined. It is feared that it may, in the long term, undermine the skills base and potential creativity and innovation in the BBC. Yet again, there has been no independent research to justify that increase in the privatisation element, and no independent research on the quantification of the increase from 25 per cent. to 50 per cent. Moreover, there is substantial evidencewhich I am happy to submit to the Ministerthat when work has been outsourced from the BBC, the working conditions of the staff involved have deteriorated. Problems with wages, and even with health and safety matters, have been raised consistently by individual unions.
In addition, the pensions assurances given to staff who were outsourced to companies have not been
abided by. Many who are retiring are being offered benefits and pensions significantly below those that they were promised. I urge the Secretary of State to consider the detailed implementation of the agreement, so that where the window of creative competition applies and enables a wider range of services and facilities to be outsourced, there is adequate consultation with the unions and the representatives of the work force that will be affected.
The composition of the trust has been raised by various hon. Members. There is disappointment that there will not be a representative from the trade union movement on the trust itself. Historically, there has been a commitment that there should be some representative of the work force on any governing body of the BBC. That has not happened under the new regime. That means that there will be a loss of expertise on the trust in terms of the debates on the long-term future of the BBC.
The National Union of Journalists and I support the licence fee and congratulate the Government on maintaining it as the basis for the funding of the BBC, but there needs to be a wider debate during the mid-term review of the new regime. We need to discuss shortly how that review will be undertaken and what consultations will be undertaken as a result of the review.
It is an obscene disgrace that the management have increased their salaries over the past three years by 25 to 30 per cent. overall, while at the same time cutting jobs and reducing salaries for their workers. A ballot will take place on strike action as a result of the job cuts taking place for the NUJ. I have no doubt that that ballot will support industrial action, and that part of that result will have been caused by the reaction to the directors awarding themselves such significant increases.
Increasingly, the incursion of advertising into the BBC is a concern, although a lot of concern has been expressed this evening about the BBCs own adverts. The BBC News international website is to include private sector advertising. One hundred and fifty staff involved at all levels of seniority have written to the director-general of the BBC to say that that will affect the global reputation of the BBC for independence and impartiality, and that it is a step too far in terms of the development of alternative sources of income for the BBC.
I pay tribute to the BBC, to the work that it has done over the years and to the service that it has provided. That is based on the commitment and professionalism of the staff themselves. With any reform of the BBC and designation of its future, we need to take the staff with us. Job cuts, privatisation and Ofcom interference will undermine the confidence of the staff in the long-term security of the BBC. There will be industrial action in the next few weeksas a result, I am sure, of the reaction of staff to some of the Governments proposals. I support that industrial action, and I will be appearing on the picket lines in support.
Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con):
I am grateful to have the opportunity to follow the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and to pay
tribute to the work he does for the NUJ. As the offspring of two members of that trade union, I know about the good work that it has done.
May I also say how grateful I am to follow on the Conservative Benches my good friend, the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), who, as usual, made a charming and effective contribution to the debate? He and I sat together through the previous BBC debate and we have sat together through this BBC debate. It is worth recalling, today of all dayshug a hoodie daythat it is the younger Members of the House who are prepared to sit through these debates from beginning to end and to listen to the arguments. I hate to say it but, apart from the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington and the Front-Bench spokesmen, it is the older Members who drift in and out, taking bite-sized chunks out of the debate. Therefore, I hope that the House will listen to what we have to say, although I must stop sitting next to my hon. Friend, because it has got to the stage where people are mistaking us for each other.
This has been a wide-ranging debate, covering the licence fee, salaries, governance and the relationship between the commercial sector and the BBC. It has also covered the general nature of public service broadcasting. For me, it was an extremely important debate, with a seminal moment. I was not born when John F. Kennedy was shot and I was being born when Robert Kennedy was shot, and I never thought that I would be present in the Chamber to hear the f-word uttered. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) breached that boundary. He had his Kenneth Tynan moment, although it may have been his Jonathan Ross moment
Mr. Vaizey: Apart from that terrible moment, I strongly disagreed with two of the hon. Gentlemans other points. With the greatest respect, the snobbery of his attitude in favouring the BBC over the commercial sector would have the Deputy Prime Minister turning in his political grave. The hon. Gentleman clearly believes that everything that the BBC does is right and proper and anything that the commercial sector does is appalling and rather infra dig. That is an extraordinary attitude to take and reminds Opposition Members that the true conservatives are often to be found among Labour Members, and those who are capable of radical and progressive thinking are often found on these Conservative Benches.