No, the hon. Gentleman did not. Had he listened, he would have realised that many of his points were clearly answered in my opening remarks. A good decision has been taken across Government and
the Opposition are trying to create a story that is a travesty of the truth. The decision will not put the BBC at risk.
The hon. Gentleman misrepresents the research about the publics willingness to pay the licence fee. A third of those surveyed wanted to pay less; a third were content with the current licence fee, and a third were willing to pay more. However, the class and ethnic make-up of those willing to pay more was marked. Seventy-five per cent. of those surveyed said that any new services that the BBC offered should be funded not by the licence fee but by subscription. The hon. Gentlemanunusually for himmisrepresents the facts of the case.
The cost of digital switchover is a broadcasting cost and that is why the licence fee should cover it. The only alternative is raising the money through taxes. We know that the Liberal Democrats bravely play fast and loose with public finances and unfunded tax commitments, but it is right that the licence fee payer should meet a broadcasting cost.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that when the BBC made its declaration for an increase of 2.3 per cent. above the rate of inflation, many of usincluding methought that that was outrageous? I am pleased that the Jowell-Brown combination has come up with something much more reasonable. If the BBC finds difficulty in managing its books, it should consider some of its programmes. I do not fall for the nonsense about the wonderful journalismthe starry-eyed views that I had when I first came here have changed over the past many years. I would sack Andrew Neil and all his cronies on The Daily Politics programme and fire Nick Robinsonanother Tory who works for the BBC. If any more savings are needed, what about telling Jonathan Ross that he gets too much money? Finally, the BBC should be told that if it is going to help Channel 4 with its switchover costs, that station had better drop crap programmes like Big Brother.
The BBCs original bid was an opening bid in what became a negotiation. The outcome that we have reached is considerably more sober and realistic. The licence fee payer has to fund that fee. In the House andarguably more importantamong the wider public, there was much adverse comment in the summer about the salaries that the BBC paid for talent.
Let us remember that we expect the BBC to run the scheme that will ensure that the poorest and most vulnerable in our country are supported, helped and guided in switching to digital. That is an important function and an important public role for our major public service broadcaster to play.
Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con): Will the Secretary of State confirm that although the licence fee may not be increasing in real terms, the total amount of money available to the BBC is likely to do so because of household growth? Will she give the House any estimates that she has of the BBCs future total income? Will she also answer the question that my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) asked about whether the money that licence fee payers have to contribute towards the non-BBC costs of digital switchover will be separately identified on the licence fee bill?
Tessa Jowell: I thank the hon. Gentleman, who, as Chairman of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, has followed the matter closely. He is right that household growth means that increasing numbers of people are paying the licence fee. That has been factored into the settlement. We estimate that, over the period of the settlement, the money available will be £600 million.
As I have made clear, we have ring-fenced the costs of digital switchover and we shall consider whether they should be explicitly and separately identified in the licence fee bill. I believe that that is in the spirit of transparency, which is important.
Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friends statement on the BBC settlement. I especially welcome this afternoons statement by the BBC Trust that it remains committed to the move to Salford. However, I am slightly surprised that the increase in the borrowing powers is only 12.5 per cent. My back-of-an-envelope calculation suggests that that increases the borrowing powers to £225 million. The original borrowing powers were set at £200 million in 1990.
Most of the cost of the move to Salford will be up front, although that transfer will save money in the long term. Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that the level of borrowing is high enough? Will she consider increasing it to help the move? Those of us in Manchester and Salford do not want be left in same position as people in Edinburgh in the early 1980s. They were promised a move to Edinburgh by the BBC in 1976, but the signs promising it were taken down in the early 1980s.
Tessa Jowell: I thank my hon. Friend for that point, and for his advocacy and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford (Hazel Blears). They have given enormous support to the decision to move part of BBC operations to the north-west.
The estimated cost of the move to Salford over the relevant period is approximately £190 million. We have obviously looked closely at the BBCs capacity to fund both the move and the targeted help scheme. The additional borrowing provision that I announced will be specifically linked to the scheme, to provide additional flexibility over the period when demand for the schemeand, therefore, the cash flow to meet the cost of the schemewill be at its greatest. We have also agreed that we will be prepared to keep the matter under review, should significant difficulties arise. In answer to my hon. Friends question, yes I am satisfied that the cost of the move to Salfordwhich will, as he
rightly says, save money in the long runcan be met within the existing borrowing limit for the BBCs main operation.
Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): If the Government are serious about asking the BBC to drive down its costs, why have we not seen a proposal for a salary review board such as the House has? Is it not the case that regional journalists such as those working for BBC Radio Shropshire or on the BBCs Midlands Today have to live on pretty low five-figure salaries, while those working in different parts of the United Kingdomparticularly here in the capitalhave six or sometimes seven-figure salaries? Is it not time for the Government to take a closer look at the salaries that senior broadcasters earn in London?
Tessa Jowell: That issue periodically gives rise to public concern and media headlines, and information on it deserves to be made publicly available. However, it is extremely important at a time like this to recognise that the licence fee settlement is setting the financial framework for the BBC. I do not think that anyone in the House would support the idea of a BBC with reduced independence or reduced freedom to operate within that broad framework.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): How long can the licence fee continue in its present form? My friend floated the idea of a computer tax a couple of years ago. With technological change, people will be able to receive television programmes through their broadband internetindeed, that is happening at the moment. How long will the licence fee be with us?
Tessa Jowell: This is the million dollar question.[Hon. Members: Three billion.] The three billion pound question. This is an issue that we have addressed during the charter review period. We have made it absolutely clear that, as a matter of policy, the licence fee will continue throughout the period of this charter, for another 10 years. However, we have allowed for a financial review at some point around the mid-point of this charter. Undoubtedly, from the publics point of view, the licence fee is the least best option
Tessa Jowell: Well, it is the least best or the least worst. Nobody necessarily loves the licence fee, but they do not love any of the alternatives any better. We have to take this issue back to the underlying principle of broadcasting, which is universal access. The great strength of the licence fee has always been that it guarantees universal access to those who pay it.
Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD):
I wonder whether the Secretary of State will answer the clear question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) earlier. If the cost of digital switchover is greater than £600 million, who will pick up the cost?
Will it be the Government or the BBC? If it is to be the BBC, what would she have it cut: Doctor Who or Paxman?
Tessa Jowell: We have made it clear that we will not allow the cost of running the targeted help scheme to impact on the employment of any BBC presenter or on any programming. If the costs exceed the estimates that we have set out, they will not be met by the BBC. They will be met by the public purse in different ways.
Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): The BBC does not provide local radio services in Wales. Given that the only opportunity for communities to listen to local radio in Wales is through community radio stations such as Calon FM in Wrexham, will my right hon. Friend consider allowing access to the licence fee to supplement the community radio fund, which is very small indeed compared with the sums that she has been discussing in relation to the licence fee?
Tessa Jowell: Community radio is widely supported, as is the development of local news. However, those decisions are not for me but for the BBC, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will make his representation through the trust.
Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) (Con): Given that licence fee payers are contributing more than £800 million to the cost of digital switchover, will they get their money back when the Government sell off the surplus analogue spectrum?
Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): Brian Redhead would have turned in his grave this morning to hear the move to Salford being described on Radio 4 as a move to an outpost. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this move involves a mainstream part of the BBC that will become part of an important world-class media centre, which will benefit not only the BBC and the licence fee payer but private sector broadcasters and programmers?
Tessa Jowell: I absolutely agree. I shall be generous and say that to describe a move that will attract £1.5 billion of investment and create 15,500 new jobs in one of our great cities as a move to an outpost is no more than a slip of the tongue. Anyone who goes to Seoul or Dubai will see that such investment in new media and modern broadcasting facilities is where the future lies, and I am delighted that the BBC has recognised that in Britain.
John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Will the Secretary of State confirm that the BBC Trust has agreed unreservedly to deliver targeted assistance for the switchover, or is the matter the subject of continuing negotiation?
Having just announced the licence fee to the House, we are, as the House would expect, in further discussion with the trust about the detail of the scheme. The governorsthe trust has only been in existence for a couple of weekswere certainly clear that they would be prepared in principle to run the
targeted help scheme, subject to the conditions that we have agreed about ring-fencing and protecting the BBCs main services from any detriment. Having now set out the financial framework, we will conclude the detailed negotiation, as hon. Members would expect.
Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend accept that the scope, the influence on the market and the independence of the BBC are the reasons why we have so much high-quality original British programming? Given that the link has now been broken between the retail prices index and the licence fee, does she understand the concern that ifheaven forbidthe Treasury inflation forecasts were wrong, considerable financial pressure would be placed on programme budgets?
Tessa Jowell: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. He is a great and highly effective advocate for the BBC. As he will know, we recognise the vital role that the BBC plays in developing our creative industries generally, through training and independent programme making. The Governments overriding objective in delivering the stable economic growth that has provided prosperity in this country is the control of inflation.
Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): I am very grateful for that support. Given the rapid growth in multi-media that the Secretary of State alluded to a moment ago, will not the licence fee be increasingly difficult to justify in the years ahead? Given that, is it not essential that we make absolutely sure that we are getting best value for money? And given that, why are the Secretary of State and the BBC still resisting calls to allow the NAO full access to the BBCs books, just as it has to those of any other public body?
Tessa Jowell: The debate about the future of the licence fee will go on. We have settled that debate for the next 10 years in the interests of stability and of people being taken smoothly into and through digital switchover. Yes, value for money is a stringent requirement of the BBC Trusts stewardship on behalf of its licence fee payers. We sought the NAOs advice in relation to the BBCs efficiency target, and I have today set out the outcome to the House. We have had exhaustive discussionsI have still not persuaded the hon. Gentleman, but there we areabout why we have agreed with the NAO that form of scrutiny of the BBC.
Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the move to Salford is good news for the whole north-west in terms of jobs, as well as for universities such as Central Lancashire that concentrate on media degrees? Students in the region will now have real opportunities without having to move to London. The move to the north-west is about redressing the balance, and I hope that it will ensure that the region continues to be a media centre.
Tessa Jowell: I thank my hon. Friend for the support that he has given to this policy. He is right: the changes to the north-wests economy over the past 10 years demonstrate the important contributions made by the creative industries and the scope of such growth for boosting the economy further.
Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): The Secretary of State says that she retains responsibility for the switchover policy. The BBCs original pitch was for free digital boxes for the elderly and disabled. Will she confirm that that is still the case? If so, what is her definition of elderly?
Tessa Jowell: Over 75, as it is in relation to a number of other schemes. Yes, the targeted help scheme will allow for the distribution of free set-top boxes to elderly, disabled and blind and partially sighted people who qualify.
Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): The next few years are crucial for the BBC. It cannot just stand still if it is to maintain its reputation as the best programme producer not just in the UK, but in the world. It must meet the demands of the digital multi-channel environment, the costs of the welcome move to Salford, and the £600 million costs of the digital switchoversurely it is the Governments policy to pay for the switchover, as they do the cost of free TV licences for the over-75s. Even without all those extra costs, the settlement represents a below-inflation cut over the next six years. Is the Secretary of State content to take the bullet for the Chancellors cuts, and to go down in history as the person who undermined the BBC, perhaps fatally?
Tessa Jowell: That contribution verges on the ridiculous. The Government have made a settlement, and I am the responsible Secretary of State. In government, as the hon. Gentleman is unlikely ever to discover, one negotiates with colleagues in the best public interest. The settlement is in the public interest and in the interests of the BBC.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): The Secretary of State will realise that licence fee payers do not expect their money to pay for air time to be given to racists, Nazis, Taliban and other supporters of terrorism at home and abroad. Will she build on the excellent and encouraging answer given by the Leader of the House earlier today, and state whether she has made representations to the BBC about the opinion expressed on 28 November by the head of BBC news that such views should be accorded equal respect to those of democratic representatives? Alternatively, does she agree with the Minister with responsibility for community cohesion, who rightly regarded any such shift as dangerous?
Tessa Jowell: The Leader of the House answered the hon. Gentlemans question clearly, and I entirely agree with him. Let me underline that the policing of accuracy and impartiality is a job for the BBC Trust, but it does it on behalf of the wider public, who want just thatreliable accuracy and impartiality.
Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con):
I welcome the Secretary of State standing up to those bleating voices
at the BBC and their Lib Dem allies who ask for a wholly unrealistic increase in the licence fee. Given the reduction in revenues for the BBCs competitors, it might be argued that the settlement is overly generous. How did she come to the perverse decision that the means-tested, targeted support to be provided for poorer, disadvantaged groups when switchover
happens should be paid for by the licence fee payer rather than by the Treasury?