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Mr. Chope: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that if one takes out the lump sum that comes from the Government in respect of those who are over 75—the £500-plus million—the collection costs are 4.5 per cent. of the remainder? Does he further accept that one of the prices that has had to be paid is that the licence fee is
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no longer payable through post offices? That decision has contributed to the demise of a number of our post offices.

Mr. Grogan: I am a great supporter of our post offices. One of the reasons I am on the Back Benches rather than on the Front Bench is that I have tended to vote that way when the opportunity has arisen in the House on motions on the Post Office. I share the vigour of the hon. Gentleman’s defence of post offices. It is a pity that the BBC licence fee cannot be paid at a post office, though it can be paid through PayPoint.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the change in technology and posed the question whether the licence fee was undermined by the fact that content can now be downloaded from the iPlayer after the event or accessed by other means. He cited the arguments put by Greg Dyke. Ninety per cent. of households still have televisions, the overwhelming majority of which pay the licence fee. If one accesses BBC content live, whether through television or computer, one is liable to pay the licence fee.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned BBC resistance, a group that I had not heard of before and which he seemed to mention with approval. I do not detect a widespread movement of resistance to paying the licence fee, although it is right that the BBC Trust is investigating other methods of collecting the fee and reviewing whether all the ways of pursuing people to ensure that they pay are appropriate. We all look forward to the BBC Trust’s report in due course.

Mr. Chope: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the terms of reference adopted by the BBC Trust are narrow? The review does not invite people to consider whether non-payment of the TV licence fee should be decriminalised, whether it is reasonable that there should still be imprisonment for non-payment, or whether there might be an alternative to the licence fee as a means of paying for the BBC.

Mr. Grogan: Some of those suggestions go way beyond what the BBC Trust is trying to do. It is trying to fulfil its responsibilities of overseeing the collection of the licence fee. It is not up to the BBC Trust to initiate a debate on alternatives to the licence fee. The hon. Gentleman mentioned sponsorship approvingly. The BBC Trust has reprimanded management about sponsorship of the Proms and Sports Personality of the Year, thereby showing that it has teeth. Its investigation of the topic is to be welcomed.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned a range of alternatives—subscription, advertising, direct Government funding, and sponsorship. Subscription to the BBC would destroy the universality of access. It would destroy moments such as those that we all enjoyed during the Olympics a few weeks ago, when the whole nation celebrated moments of great sporting success together, and it would destroy the fundamental principles of the BBC.

President Sarkozy of France is a great admirer of the BBC. Indeed, his wife appeared on the BBC on the Jools Holland show late at night on a Friday.

Mr. Vaizey indicated assent.


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Mr. Grogan: I do not know whether that programme might tempt the hon. Member for Christchurch late at night on a Friday. It clearly tempts his colleague on the Front Bench, the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey). President Sarkozy is now insisting that the French public service broadcaster drop advertising and move in a different direction. ITV certainly would not support the BBC having advertising. An already volatile market would collapse if the BBC were funded in that way.

Sponsorship offers a limited possibility of funding. Total TV sponsorship across all the channels is less than £100 million a year and does not provide an alternative to the licence fee. That leaves direct taxation. One of the great things about the licence fee, even though it is a matter of public controversy, is that it is fixed till 2012. That is a long time in terms of public funding. It is not subject to an annual spending round. If the chairman of the BBC had to troop in to see the Chancellor every year, that would, over time, impact on the BBC and undermine the cutting edge of a presenter such as Jeremy Paxman.

KPMG did a study of public service broadcasters around the world that examined different models of funding. The hon. Gentleman’s advocacy of the system in Belgium does not offer great comfort to me. I do not know whether he can name the public service broadcaster in Belgium or assess its impact on world culture, but I imagine it is rather small compared with that of the BBC. He cited the mixed model of funding for S4C, but that is a small player.

Studies from around the world show that if we want a strong public service broadcaster that can bring programmes with high quality content to the whole nation, the licence fee model stands out as the best model. In Australia and Canada, the public service broadcasters, ABC and CBC, are far weaker and rely on the BBC for much of their programming content. If we want high quality, there is much to be said for sticking to the model of the licence fee.

Lembit Öpik: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that many of the programmes that we all praise and that make the BBC what it is today are possible only because the BBC has direct access to funding that does not have to be repaid in a commercial sense? Further to that, many of the other commercial enterprises in the broadcasting sector depend on the mentoring and the tutelage of the BBC, which effectively supplies many of the staff across the board who start in the BBC and move on to the independent sector.

Mr. Grogan: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, which gets to the crux of the matter. The hon. Member for Christchurch advocated a sort of arts council of the air. There are a number of problems with the idea that public service broadcasting could be preserved if the licence fee were top-sliced or abolished entirely and all broadcasters could bid to make programmes. The fact that the BBC provides such high quality programming is something to do with the security and continuity over time of the institution. People can be creative and take risks in comedy, drama and political and news coverage.

If every programme had to be bid for in some sort of arts council of the air, as happened in New Zealand, quality would deteriorate. It would hardly be good for
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Channel 4 if the licence fee were top-sliced and it had to be publicly accountable for the licence fee in the same way as the BBC is. Would “Big Brother” or “Dispatches” be supported by the licence fee? We have to look for other models of the BBC supporting the rest of public service broadcasting, rather than top-slicing the licence fee and breaking the link between licence fee payers and the BBC.

Mr. Chope: Will the hon. Gentleman give his view of what should be done, in the light of the Ofcom review, to promote competition among regional news channels, for example? ITV regional news will die as a public service news organisation unless it receives money from somewhere. At the moment, the BBC is enjoying a monopoly of public service revenue. Should that not be shared?

Mr. Grogan: The hon. Gentleman has cited Michael Grade; it is a complete misrepresentation of his position to say that he wants public funding for ITV. I shall come to suggestions about how we can preserve more of our public service broadcasting, but the last thing Michael Grade wants is the licence fee. He made that perfectly clear in his remark at the breakfast.

Today’s debate is important. I like to consider how the different Front-Bench and Back-Bench members of the modern-day Conservative party view Polly Toynbee. How do they react when they see an article by her in the Tea Room? I am sure that some read her avidly and are interested in the view of The Guardian on a whole range of issues, but I suspect that the hon. Member for Christchurch is not one of them. It is interesting that only last week Polly Toynbee—one of the great advocates of the BBC—wrote in The Guardian:

Mr. Vaizey: I am interested that the hon. Gentleman has brought up Polly Toynbee; the Secretary of State has also done so. The hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) likes to give the impression that the Labour party is an uncritical supporter of hers; if it supports her views on the BBC, does it also support her view that the Prime Minister should resign immediately as he is a lame duck?

Mr. Grogan: I was going on to say that I would not endorse all of Polly Toynbee’s views. I hasten to add that, in recent months, I have been an enthusiastic supporter of the Prime Minister when some others were not.

There is something that encourages me about the modern-day Conservative party and its reading of Polly Toynbee—and I mean this most sincerely, as someone used to say on ITV. The Conservative party has had at least as much to do with the BBC and its development over the years as the Labour party. The Conservative party created the BBC and created not its current charter, but its previous two. I was encouraged to hear the Leader of the Opposition say recently to his Scottish party conference:


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Mr. Chope: It so happens that I have read one of Polly Toynbee’s articles on this subject. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with her statement that

Mr. Grogan: There is an argument for that; those who are leading at the very top of the BBC must recognise that they are going to earn less than they would in the private sector, although I do not want to name a particular figure. The BBC clearly has to pay for top talent, because it is a complex organisation to manage and it needs top talent to appear on our screens as well. However, such people should recognise that their terms and conditions will involve a little less pay than they would receive in the commercial sector. Nevertheless, the BBC should pay decently those who manage one of our most valued and cherished public institutions.

Lembit Öpik: As the hon. Gentleman knows, BBC staff accept that they effectively take on a financial penalty for working at the organisation. However, its culture is so strong and the working environment there is so attractive in respect of creativity and what they can do, that they accept that cost. Is that not one of the most powerful testimonies of the benefits of the BBC as it is now structured and a reassurance to the public that paying for the licence fee does not mean paying through the nose for BBC staff?

Mr. Grogan: The hon. Gentleman is right; clearly, every penny of BBC expenditure has to be scrutinised, and the new system of the BBC Trust under Sir Michael Lyons is doing that job better than the old Government system. The BBC Trust is a relatively new form of governance, but it is stressing value for money. I hope that we will hear from the Opposition strong statements of support for the BBC in line with the solid Tory tradition to which I referred. The BBC is not the property of any particular political party; it belongs to the nation. Of all British institutions, it speaks to the world; Polly Toynbee was right on that, and I hope that Conservative Front Benchers share that view—the Leader of the Opposition seems to. The BBC is a global institution of which Britain can be proud, along with premier league football and some of the songs of our most popular bands, which are renowned in popular culture throughout the world.

Mr. Chope: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who has been very generous in giving way. To what extent does he think that Mark Thompson’s salary of £816,000 a year is an underpayment?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I remind hon. Members that we are discussing the television licence fee, not the salaries of individuals.

Mr. Chope: Madam Deputy Speaker, Mr. Thompson’s salary of £816,000 is directly paid by those who pay the licence fee; that consideration was behind my intervention.

Madam Deputy Speaker: I realise that, but still think that the general thrust of this debate is whether the television licence should be abolished.


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Mr. Grogan: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker; obviously, I shall follow your ruling.

Lembit Öpik: Madam Deputy Speaker, I hope that I am in order in saying that my earlier point was that the BBC tends to pay less than the independent sector for the same level of staff. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, far from being expensive, BBC staff are extremely good value for money, and that it is inappropriate—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I have already made a ruling on this matter.

Mr. Grogan: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker; I shall follow your ruling to the letter.

We are having this debate at a timely moment. Over its 80-year history, the BBC has been too centred on London. This week has been dramatic, with lots happening in the world economy and so on. The House may have missed a speech by Jana Bennett, director of BBC Vision, who announced much more ambitious targets for moving BBC production out of London to the nations and regions. By 2016, a third of all BBC production will come from the English regions, up from 26 per cent. now. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will account for 17 per cent. of the production of all BBC programmes by that stage—nearly a tripling of their output. As Jana Bennett said,

It has taken the BBC a long while to learn that lesson. It will be simply fantastic when Manchester can boast BBC Radio 5 Live, 5 Live Extra and the two children’s channels. A lot of BBC commissioning has gone to Manchester through BBC Learning as well. In answer to the question put by the hon. Member for Christchurch about what more the BBC can do to assist other public service broadcasters, I should say that the sharing of facilities is one of them. The BBC management have suggested that they could share some of their local and regional news output and some of their research and development with the commercial sector; they have already co-operated with ITV on issues such as Freesat.

In the coming months, it will be interesting to see how BBC management can monetise that sharing of resources, how they can be more specific and what suggestions they make to Ofcom and the Government about how they can do that. In the meantime, there will be a revolution for viewers and listeners in the voice of the BBC and where the programmes come from.

The Welsh newspapers were saying a couple of days ago that Auntie is becoming Welsh. “Crimewatch” is moving to Wales, as, possibly, is “Casualty”. I think that Members on both sides of the House will welcome that move because, as the hon. Member for Christchurch said, there is a danger that ITV’s regional heritage and tradition is weakening, which means that there is even more merit in the BBC becoming stronger in the regions.

Sport on the BBC is one of the joys of the nation. It is tremendous to be able to watch great sporting events without the interruption of adverts. The BBC was the only major public service broadcaster in the world to stay after the Olympics to cover the Paralympics. During the Olympics and the Paralympics, it delivered the red button service—a product of Freeview, Freesat and technology that the BBC has developed over the years. That was a tremendous bonus for a sports fan. I am
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glad that the Government are reviewing the list of sporting events that must be made available to free-to-air broadcasters at a reasonable price. It would be nice to see added to that the Ashes series, the last day of the Ryder cup and the home nations’ qualification matches for the World cup and European championships. The BBC is still the world’s biggest terrestrial broadcaster in terms of sport. Ten per cent. of the output of BBC1 and BBC2 is devoted to sport. It enriches the lives of many people who could not afford to pay subscriptions for Sky TV and Setanta. Our national life would be much diminished without BBC Sport’s contribution to it.

The BBC licence fee still has a lot of life in it. It is the least worst system of supporting a BBC that still reaches 93 per cent. of people in the nation every week. Eighty-four per cent. of people—a figure that is slightly up on last year—watch one or other of the BBC TV channels each year. More than 50 per cent. of our radio listening is done via the BBC. Our local radio stations enrich communities across the length and breadth of our land. Above all, the BBC produces programmes of such quality that they are the envy of the world. They inform, educate and entertain. Because of the BBC, people switch on their radios or television sets, things catch their eye or make them prick up their ears, and they become interested in things that they would never believe they could be interested in. It is still true that, in the words of Dennis Potter, one can tune in, switch on and marvel. It gives me great pleasure to oppose this Bill and to support the BBC licence fee.

11.42 am

Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), who has been a vocal supporter of the BBC during his 11 years in this House. It is rumoured that his time here may be coming to an end, but I am sure that he will re-emerge outside in some form or other as a continued supporter of the BBC.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) on using his opportunity in the ballot for private Members’ Bills to promote this Bill. It is important to make two points at the outset. First, as my hon. Friend said, to propose the abolition of the licence fee—or, to put it more kindly, to propose an alternative way of funding the BBC—is not to launch an attack on the BBC. One can be a friend of the BBC and still suggest that it might be alternatively funded. Secondly, no one in this House, whatever their views of the BBC or the licence fee, should be afraid to debate whether the licence fee is the best way of funding the organisation. Since I entered politics, I have found that it is always extremely dangerous to muse, debate or think outside the box. I want to put it on record that I am a firm supporter of the licence fee, as is the Conservative party. Nevertheless, no one should be afraid to rehearse the arguments about whether the licence fee is the best funding mechanism.


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