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Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): I begin by echoing the praise bestowed on the BBC by the hon. Members for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) and for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan). I am glad that, on a day on which
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the truce seems to have broken down outside the House, a degree of cross-party consensus remains, at least on this issue.

Particularly in this day and age, when we seem to be deluged by cheap reality TV programmes—I mean cheap in terms of production costs and artistic and educational merit—there is certainly a place for publicly funded television that maintains certain standards. I am afraid that the hon. Member for Wantage has somewhat stolen my thunder, or at least accused me in advance of being rather predictable, as at this point I want to pay tribute to the BBC’s natural history unit. It has been based in Bristol since its inception in 1957, although sadly not quite in my constituency. As has been said, it has produced fascinating and ground-breaking programmes such as “The Blue Planet” and “Life on Earth”, and it continues to do so.

In some respects, however, I would question whether the BBC is making best use of licence payers’ money. That relates to the point raised by the hon. Gentleman about the fact that the licence fee gives the BBC freedom to innovate. In one area, I am particularly concerned that it is moving into pastures new, which might not be the best approach. I understand that Ofcom and the BBC Trust are examining proposals from the BBC for a massive expansion of its website services.

I have nothing but praise for the national and international news on the BBC website, and we have only to look at it to realise that it is used not just by expats, but by many people from other countries who want an insight into what is going on in this country. However, the BBC intends to expand into much more local video news, sports and weather, and I understand that there are plans for three daily bulletins for each, which will be updated three times a day. That will be rolled out in 60 different geographical areas from 2009-10 onwards and will cost about £68 million over three years.

Putting that in context, last year, the natural history unit’s annual budget of some £37 million was cut by a third, which has meant a reduction in some series that are being produced and a staff cut of a third. Is that really where the BBC should be heading? There is concern that the plans will affect other providers of local news services, which I would argue do the job an awful lot better because they are based on the ground and understand their market. For example, local newspapers are setting up local websites, which run the same stories while catering for a slightly different audience.

The concern is that the BBC—by, in effect, using licence fee payers’ money to park its tanks on the lawns of local newspapers—will increase the pressure on a sector that is already hard pressed and struggling for advertising revenue in days when the property and jobs markets are perhaps experiencing a downturn. Should the BBC be doing that or sticking to what it is best at?

My other concern was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Selby, and I would have leapt to my feet to intervene had I not been about to mention it in my speech. He referred to the speech made by Jana Bennett on the regionalisation of services. Generally speaking, I do not have a problem with that, and it is obviously good that the BBC is not London-centric and that it is moving some programmes outside London, but one proposal has dismayed people in Bristol. The BBC is moving “Casualty” to Cardiff.

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I accept that basing 5 per cent. of BBC production in Cardiff may well be a good move, but “Casualty” has been filmed in Bristol since 1986. It is the world’s second longest-running medical drama and the longest-running emergency-based hospital drama. It paved the way for programmes such as “ER” and “Chicago Hope”. Last year, it won best continuing drama at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards and has been nominated for many other awards.

For me, “Casualty” and Bristol are inextricably linked. The programme is based in the fictional city of Holby, but everybody knows the landmarks, such as the Clifton suspension bridge, and the accident and emergency sets are based in warehouses in my constituency. A recent programme was filmed in Arnos Vale, a restored Victorian cemetery in my constituency. Relocating “Casualty” to Cardiff would be akin to relocating EastEnders to Trafalgar square instead of Albert square. It just would not be the same.

Mr. Chope: To what extent has the hon. Lady, as a Bristol MP, been consulted by the BBC on this issue? Does she share my concern that this is another example of how although the BBC receives the proceeds of what is effectively a tax from the licence fee payer, it is not accountable for the way in which it spends it?

Kerry McCarthy: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I have only been approached by the Bristol Evening Post, which is running a campaign to keep “Casualty” in Bristol, and by the Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union, which represents those who work on the programme. As I was about to say, “Casualty” contributes £10 million a year to the local economy. More importantly, it also provides training and work experience for people who want to work in the media industries. That has attracted students to Bristol universities to study media, broadcasting and journalism. Many people have worked on “Casualty”—not only the actors and extras who are seen on screen, but lighting engineers, set designers, camera operators, technicians and writers—and used that experience to move on and set up their own production companies, to work on other programmes or go to the natural history unit. “Casualty” has given them invaluable experience. As the hon. Member for Christchurch suggests, the BBC has not talked to local people about the impact of moving “Casualty” out of Bristol on the local economy. As we experience more difficult times, such factors are important.

I do not wish to name drop, but last night at a reception in the other place I bumped into Kwame Kwei-Armah, the well-known actor, broadcaster and playwright, who just happened to star in “Casualty” for five years. He was very disappointed by the announcement that it might be relocated, and he has pledged his support to the campaign.

In conclusion, I support a publicly funded BBC and, in the absence of compelling arguments for another way to fund it, I support the retention of the licence fee. It is valid to discuss why it should be that everyone apart from those who qualify for concessions has to pay the same amount, and the increasing demonisation of people who do not have television licences, who are hounded
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by the licensing authorities. I was in that position myself, when I bought a flat in London but did not occupy it for three months and certainly did not have a television there. It felt as though I was being threatened with court action every other day, and that was wrong. The BBC licence people are also based in Bristol and I took the issue up with them.

There are questions to be asked about how the system operates and whether the best use is made of licence fee money, but I remain to be convinced that the hon. Member for Christchurch has come up with the ideal solution to replace it, so for the time being I shall oppose his Bill.

12.18 pm

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): It is unusual for all three Front Benchers to sing from similar, if not entirely the same, song sheets. Earlier, we were predicting future legislation, and I suspect that I predicted fairly accurately in this case. The tone of the debate would be rather different if instead of its present title, the Bill were called the Broadcasting (How do we pay for the BBC) Bill. We would be arguing about the licence fee, how long it should last, whether it should be scaled down and alternatives to it. Instead, we are discussing a dramatic change in 2012, and not a more constructive approach to making progress.

Mr. Chope: Earlier, we compared the licence fee with the community charge. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that during the so-called poll tax riots, the people who were fed up with the poll tax did not say that they wanted to put a different system in its place? They said that they wanted to get rid of the existing system because it was unjust.

Richard Younger-Ross: The hon. Gentleman might be right about the poll tax. He made that comparison earlier, not I. I merely responded to his comments in an intervention. I shall come to public opinion later in my speech, if he will give me the time and the opportunity to do so. I want to go through some of the basic arguments and to consider some of the potential consequences of not having a licence fee. For example, what would have happened if we had not had a licence fee in the past? What would we have missed? I shall also look at the programme for the BBC. The hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) mentioned speeches by Jana Bennett, which raised some interesting points that I hope to discuss if time permits.

The licence fee is £139.50 for colour and £47 for black and white. I must ask how many black and white licences are sold, if any. I know they exist, but perhaps someone will be inspired at some point and will be able to answer that question. A colour licence fee is the equivalent to about a pint to a pint and a half of beer a week. That is not a vast sum of money for what we get. We get two national TV stations, 10 free national radio stations, 40 free local radio stations, comprehensive online services and, of course, multi-channel services for multi-channel homes.

We have free access to a range of nine BBC digital TV and radio stations. Indeed, the BBC was growing so fast at one time that I had difficulty catching up. People were talking about BBC 6, and I asked, “Where do you find that? What is it?” When I found those stations, they
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turned out to be very fine. The BBC’s digital channels BBC 3 and BBC 4 are groundbreaking, inventive and challenging, as well as carrying repeats and other features that we welcome the opportunity to view again. As MPs, we often have surgeries on a Friday night or duties on a Saturday, and we welcome the ability to catch programmes on a Sunday when we forgot to set our digital recorder.

No one should doubt that the BBC is good value for money. It is not just about the quantity, but about the quality. That is especially important with the move to digital. The broadcasting world is changing, however. We now have films on mobile phones, TV over the internet and so on. In principle, digital switchover means more choice. In practice, we risk the cheap and the easy—more mindless, exploitive reality TV shows. Even Members of Parliament have been on them. Do we recall? We would rather not—I see grimaces round the House. Such programmes crowd out the good programmes.

Heaven help us if we were to rely on FOX News, for instance, for our information about the world, or if we moved towards narrow casting and the narrow-mindedness encouraged by placing viewers in minority interest ghettos. There would be no more of the shared experiences across the nation that we are given by the BBC and by its breadth, with the changes from programme to programme during the day. There are people who do not just get up and change channels. Some people will go from one programme to another and enjoy the experience that they accidentally come across. Some of us found at first that we would sit on the settee with the remote control, clicking from channel to channel to see what was on, much to the annoyance of our other halves. That problem was resolved in my household when the TV channel switcher was put on my wife’s side of the lounge.

There are dangers that must be resisted, because the role of the BBC is crucial. We cherish the BBC for its diversity—educational programmes, high quality drama and comedy and children’s shows—free from adverts. There is a huge range of music choice on radio. The BBC website is the most trusted in the world for news and current affairs programmes that are authoritative, accurate and, above all, impartial.

Like the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy), who is no longer in the Chamber, I must of course mention nature programmes. My interest in nature was very much inspired by some of the early BBC programmes. The Attenboroughs have both contributed to our creative industries in various ways, and I was transfixed by nature programmes such as “Planet Earth”, although sadly I saw little of it. We have other duties and life is full, but the episodes I saw were of exceptional quality.

We would be foolish to put all that at risk. The opinions of about 7,000 UK residents on the cost of the licence fee were set out in a survey commissioned by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in 2006. The survey found that respondents were willing to pay a maximum of £138.24 for current BBC services, but that they would pay up to £162.66—I do not know how that was worked out to the exact penny—for the current service and the proposed new activities.

Mr. Chope: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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Richard Younger-Ross: The hon. Gentleman gave way to me so many times that I feel obliged to do so.

Mr. Chope: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Does he think that people who responded in that way would be willing to make voluntary payments of £139.50 a year to the BBC if there was no compulsory licence fee?

Richard Younger-Ross: I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman were to ask the shadow Chancellor that question in terms of whether people would voluntarily pay tax, the answer would be no. Some things have to be paid for and a mechanism has to be found to do it. If we believe that the BBC is a valued institution that should continue, the payment has to come from some source. At present, the licence fee is the fairest way.

To continue my point—if the hon. Gentleman will allow me—when people in the survey were asked what they would be willing to pay for the current services and the proposed new activities, 36.5 per cent. wanted to keep the same licence fee, 35 per cent. were willing to pay a slightly increased amount, of between £15 and £19 a month, and 11.5 per cent. were willing to pay a substantially increased licence fee. In 17 per cent. of cases, the respondents wanted the fee lowered from its then £11 a month, so only a small number—less than a fifth—wanted the licence fee lowered.

A more recent poll, carried out for MediaGuardian by Ipsos MORI on 18 August 2008, found that 41 per cent. of respondents agreed that the licence fee was the appropriate way of funding the BBC. I am not too sure where the battalions signing e-petitions have come from, but they are not borne out by a poll in which the majority of people were in favour of keeping the licence fee and only 37 per cent. disagreed.

There were criticisms, however. It is fair to say that there are concerns about how the BBC manages itself, about its relocations—as we heard earlier, some of its programmes will be relocating from Bristol to Cardiff—and about whether it is good value for money. The fees paid to some personalities give rise to concern from the general public. I do not say whether the BBC is right to pay those individuals such sums. Those are commercial considerations. The BBC is in a competitive market; it is competing with the ITV companies and Sky for people to front programmes. It is for the BBC to make judgments about what it is worth to secure not the mediocre, but the best people to front its services. There is no reason why the BBC should not have the best, albeit not necessarily for all its programmes. In that competition, the BBC sometimes loses—clearly, it has lost out on sport in the past, and it has taken action by Parliament to protect some sports events so that coverage is not subject to open bidding and they are not lost. I know that whether that protection should be extended is a matter of debate, but that is for another time.

Criticisms were made in the survey: one third of respondents agreed that the licence fee provides value for money, but almost half—47 per cent.—disagreed. Just under one third agreed that the licence fee assures the provision of quality programming and services not available elsewhere, but a significantly higher proportion—41 per cent.—disagreed. There are questions to answer, which we might consider if this were a different debate.

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There are alternative ways of funding the BBC. The first is subscription, but that would result in a reduction in the BBC’s income, so that it would be unable to do all that it does now. That includes things that benefit those who never watch the BBC—the “university of broadcasting”, the technology development and the drive to digital. The emphasis would be on programmes that persuade viewers to sign up, but people are not easily tempted by the unfamiliar—a point that we touched on earlier. The adventurous, creative initiatives would suffer the most. In addition, funding by subscription does not provide a solution for radio: we are a long way from technology to raise subscriptions for radio, which uses 18 per cent. of licence fee income.

In an aside on the quality of the BBC’s output, let me say that when I worked abroad in Iraq for seven months in 1982, my sole contact with home was the BBC World Service. I realise that its funding comes from a different body, but the World Service linked into those BBC programmes with which I was familiar. Listening to the sport, including football, on Saturday night certainly helped me to keep in contact with the UK. I found the familiarity of the BBC helpful when I was living away from home and from my fiancée, now my wife, to whom I had got engaged shortly before having to work abroad.

The second alternative is to pay for the BBC via advertising and sponsorship, but other broadcasters that rely on advertising would suffer. The TV advertising pot remains static. Broadcasters are losing funding and making changes to their newscasting and regional news in an attempt to save money. Public service broadcasters that rely on advertising would demand a reduction in their public service obligation, as ITV already has. If it were reliant on advertising and sponsorship, the BBC would go only for the most popular material that attracts advertising and sponsorship. The diversity that we cherish would be lost.

Direct Government funding is another alternative that we might consider. Yes, it would be more progressive—the hon. Member for Christchurch has a good point—but the licence is already free for the over-75s. The blind receive only a 50 per cent. reduction; it could be argued that that should be increased to 100 per cent., but that, too, is an argument for a general debate on BBC funding. Furthermore, those in care homes get a concessionary rate of £7.50 a year. We could go further, because there are other groups to whom we should consider giving a free service.

Direct Government funding would reduce licence fee collection costs, although those are falling, thanks in particular to direct debit and online collection systems, but that funding method is fraught with danger. Governments of whatever hue could cut funding at a stroke if they did not like what they saw or heard. The public service broadcaster in Australia, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, has had its income cut by 25 per cent. in the past 18 years. Significantly, there is now a campaign to reintroduce the licence fee in Australia. If the UK got rid of the licence fee, in 10 years’ time, hon. Members would be saying, “We want to bring back the licence fee, because we used to cherish the BBC, but we have lost a lot of that feeling.”

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