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Most importantly, direct funding by the Government would make the BBC more vulnerable to subtle threats
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about its journalism. The BBC only just survived the disgraceful attacks made on it by Alastair Campbell and the Government during the Gilligan affair. We now know that Gilligan’s story was broadly right, yet oddly he, the chairman of governors and the director-general all resigned. In my view, and the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), that was unnecessary.

Let us imagine what it would have been like if the BBC had been funded directly by the Government. We would have the Fox News problem. Some 80 per cent. of Fox News viewers in the States believed one of the following: that weapons of mass destruction had been found; that there were proven links between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein; and that the US went to war with the support of the rest of the world. Only 23 per cent. of viewers of PBS in the States believed such nonsense. Whom would we believe if the BBC was directly funded by the Government? We would not know what to believe. I trust its coverage. I can see that it is biased at times—we are all slightly biased in what we say—but we can take account of that, and we can hold it to account for that. We can argue with it, and I am sure that all political parties do so, from time to time.

Lembit Öpik: I observe that even now the BBC regards its funding settlement with some concern because of the political threats that my hon. Friend described. If he is saying that that concern would be made many times worse if there was a direct grant, I very much agree with him. Is he saying that, from the point of view of civil liberties and free speech, the TV licence seems to be the most effective way to put space between the political pressures that the BBC feels and the immeasurably greater political pressures that it would feel if we changed the system?

Richard Younger-Ross: My hon. Friend makes a good point. The BBC felt threatened as a result of the way in which the licence fee was negotiated last time. I understand some of those concerns, but I am not sure how much of that was manoeuvring. There were arguments on both sides about what the fee level would be, and what would be satisfactory. However, he makes a valid point: if we moved to a direct grant, there would be a significant risk. As I started out by saying, if the tone of the debate were different, we could consider how direct payments could be made and protected. We might come up with a system that protected those payments from interference by Government Ministers, acting on whim because they thought that they had been slighted, or that the Government were being attacked viciously by the BBC all the time. That might be a different issue. I am not saying that we should ever rule those issues out, but given the context of the Bill before us, they are not matters that I could argue for at the moment.

The BBC must change in these changing times. For example, it cannot be right for governors to be both flag-wavers for, and regulators of, the BBC. Some of that has changed. The rest of the world looks at us in envy, and abolishing the licence fee would risk throwing it all away. Do we want a dumbed-down, cut-down, less adventurous BBC? No. Do we want a BBC that no longer sets the gold standard for other broadcasters, helps with technological development or is the envy of the world? No. The best way to stop such a change is to vote against the Bill of the hon. Member for Christchurch. We need to consider consequences.

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Let me go back to “Doctor Who” and use a time machine to look at what we would have missed if the Bill had been passed 30, 40 or 50 years ago. Would we have had “Blue Peter”? Perhaps not. ITV is having difficulty funding children’s programming, and an advert-driven BBC would have the same difficulties.

Lembit Öpik: My hon. Friend will be aware that “Blue Peter” celebrated its 50th anniversary yesterday. Does he agree that the values and approach taken by “Blue Peter” is directly in line with what public service broadcasting should be? What makes it so creative is its appeal to young people. The children’s programming on the independent sector channels has largely been guided by “Blue Peter” and its ethos, including the “Blue Peter” dogs.

Richard Younger-Ross: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. “Blue Peter” was important to me as a child and has been influential in a number of the issues that it has taken up. I remember those wonderful moments with the elephant, the gentleman sniffing, John Noakes, the dogs—what were their names?

Lembit Öpik: The “Blue Peter” dogs since the inception of the programme were called Petra, Patch, Shep, Goldie, Bonnie, Mabel and Lucy. There was also a dog called Meg, but it was not an official “Blue Peter” dog. It belonged to Matt Baker and frequently appeared on the show, so including that one, there were eight dogs.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. That is a detail which could possibly be left for Committee.

Richard Younger-Ross: I hear what Mr. Deputy Speaker says, so I shall not mention tortoises or other animals.

We would have had none of that or the BBC garden, which was important for introducing children to the idea of growing things.

Mr. Vaizey: Is the hon. Gentleman still talking about “Blue Peter”?

Richard Younger-Ross: I am, but I could speak about “Gardeners’ World” later, if the hon. Gentleman wishes. I did not have it on my list, so I am grateful to him for mentioning it.

Watching “Doctor Who” was my introduction to science fiction and other subjects that helped stimulate me as a young man. I was not allowed to watch the first programmes, which my parents deemed too frightening for a sensitive soul, so I did not hide behind the settee for the early Daleks, because I was not allowed to watch them. However, I caught up with the BBC later with the original Doctor, William Hartnell. I confess that my favourite Doctor Who was probably the pipe-playing Patrick Troughton, whose son is an actor and who was wonderful. We would have missed all that.

The same could be said of the “Watch with Mother” programmes. A possible criticism of the BBC is that it should be doing more programmes like that, and similar radio programmes, which it used to do so excellently.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Barbara Follett): May I expand on the point that the hon. Gentleman is making? Children’s programmes can be an introduction to culture later in
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adult life. I recently had the pleasure of attending the David Tennant “Hamlet” in Stratford and I was struck by the number of children and young people in the audience, who had been drawn there because of his performance in “Doctor Who” and who thoroughly enjoyed the “Hamlet”.

Richard Younger-Ross: The Minister makes a good point. Those children had seen an actor in one guise and gone on to watch him in another. I believe that David Tennant’s “Hamlet” is an exceptionally good one. One day, I might get to the theatre myself—something which, sadly, rarely happens.

I used to listen to “The Archers” as a young child. In a debate yesterday, I said that as a child I wanted to be a signalman, rather than a train driver, because I wanted to direct where the trains went. From “The Archers” I gained an interest in agriculture, and from nature programmes, an interest in wildlife. In my teens, I went from wanting to be a farmer to wanting to be a zoologist, and that all came from the programmes—primarily BBC programmes—that I had listened to and watched. However, to refer back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), I should sadly confess that I was a “Magpie” fan, so I was a traitor to the cause, but competition from the other side can be good for the BBC.

There are other popular programmes that are valuable to people, and we could have more of them. “EastEnders” might well survive if there was a downsizing at the BBC. People talk about exporting things from one city to another, but the BBC tried to export that programme to Spain and fell dismally on its face. With direct funding, some programmes would face a lot of pressure. I enjoy watching “Top Gear”, a programme whose presenters’ silly and foolish antics a number of hon. Members criticise. I would not condone some of the things that those presenters have done, but overall the programme is enjoyable and brings valuable satisfaction to many people. One can go through the list: “Last of the Summer Wine”, “All Creatures Great and Small” and “Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em”.

Sadly, Mark Tavener, a good friend of mine, died tragically early a year ago. He made programmes directly critical of the BBC and wrote “In the Red” and “Absolute Power”, which many of us will have enjoyed. Some of his early stuff was critical of the BBC. He had worked for the corporation at one point and was adept at poking fun at his previous employer and getting it to pay him to broadcast it. A programme that we all know and love——and a favourite of a former Prime Minister’s——is “Yes Minister”; that valuable series probably would have survived any cuts.

The director of BBC Vision, Jana Bennett, has been mentioned. On 15 October, she gave a speech to the Royal Television Society at the Commonwealth club, just down the road from here. I want to pull out a couple of things that she said. I shall not try to read the whole speech into the record, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I am sure that you would do more than raise your eyebrows at that. I shall use just two or three small quotes.

Part of the BBC’s drive at the moment is to decentralise away from London and move out. I visited the proposed site at Salford with my hon. Friend the Member for Bath and others to see how that work in progress is
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doing. If we were to change the funding system as the Bill proposes, would that diversification and programme of change be able to go ahead? Would Salford go ahead if there were uncertainty about where the funding stream would come from? There would be a real danger to that programme of change. Ms Bennett said that the BBC Trust

As one whose constituency is in the south-west, I welcome more broadcasting and programme making in our neck of the woods. I am sure that hon. Members with constituencies in Cardiff, Edinburgh and other parts of the United Kingdom feel the same about their areas.

Ms Bennett talked about opening up creative opportunities and said:

That is true. She continued:

the site of which I visited. She added:

Let me make a few final points.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I hope that they will be apposite. The hon. Gentleman has been getting vaguer and vaguer in relating his remarks to the prime purpose of the Bill. I urge that in his closing remarks he is very mindful of the issue that is strictly before the House.

Richard Younger-Ross: I always try to be mindful of that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I thank you for reminding me to keep to the proper course.

The BBC reaches 93 per cent. of British households every month through its television, radio and online services, at a cost of £139—38p a day, or a couple of pints of beer a week—to each paying household. That is less than half the cost of many daily newspapers, so it is exceedingly good value in terms of the news coverage that it provides.

In common with all areas of public funding, the licence fee has rightly been exposed to much scrutiny and discussion, and I am sure that the BBC welcomes today’s debate. Successive Government reviews of the BBC charter have concluded that the licence fee is the most appropriate means of funding the BBC, which is so highly valued by the public, and I am sure that the Minister will continue in that vein. She is nodding her head, so I feel that I am on fairly safe ground. The most recent research by Ofcom shows that the public continue to value the BBC at the current licence fee level or
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above, and that the majority do not believe that the fee should be shared with other broadcasters or organisations. That is an important point, on which I shall finish.

12.52 pm

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): The Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) is half-baked. We often discuss weird and wonderful Bills on Fridays, some of which are badly drafted, but I do not think that we have had a Bill as badly drafted as this one this year. This debate has been more like an Adjournment debate on the licence fee than a Second Reading debate on a public Bill introduced as a private Member’s Bill under the presentation of Bills procedure.

The hon. Gentleman jeopardises the BBC’s worldwide reputation with this back-of-a-fag-packet Bill. While the licence fee may not be the best system, the Bill makes no provision for any alternative. It is nihilistic and would sweep everything away with only the vaguest idea of what to replace it with. It is simply not thought through. He made comparisons with the poll tax, but that is a false comparison. The poll tax changed a system—the old rating system—that had been there for many years. It was a tax per person in a household, not, as in the case of the licence fee, a single charge per household. The licence fee has exemptions, which the poll tax did not.

The hon. Gentleman argued about cost, but we need to bear in mind the cost of the licence fee as against that of buying a new TV. Some of the expensive large flat-screen plasma TVs are extremely expensive, and the cost of the licence fee will be a tiny part of the overall total.

The hon. Gentleman referred to waste at the BBC and the number of managers and their salaries. That argument is a red herring, because any waste would still have to be dealt with however the BBC were financed, whether through the licence fee, direct subsidy from the Government, sponsorship or advertising.

The hon. Gentleman had no answer to my question about how the Bill would deal with the funding of radio, one of the BBC’s great flagships. Ultimately, he had no alternative to put forward. He vaguely talked about sponsorship, and we have heard about the difficulties involved in that. Will we see “Strictly Come Dancing” sponsored by Moss Bros or Harvey Nichols? It is simply not a viable option. He talked about adverts. We know that Channel 4, which is perhaps the commercial equivalent of the BBC and a public service broadcaster, has had great difficulty filling a gap in its revenue because of the fall in advertising income. Such a move would have an impact on commercial television generally, spread the cake more thinly and not provide an answer.

We are left then with direct funding by the taxpayer. We end up with the risk of creating a state TV channel that would grace a banana republic. There is no way that we could have a system of state funding that could provide the necessary guarantees to ensure that we did not have political interference and that the impartiality for which the BBC is famous was maintained. We could have a situation where the “Today” programme one day beats up the Chancellor through a challenging interview by John Humphrys, and the next day the Chancellor is responsible for setting how much money the BBC should be allocated. That cannot be a fair way to proceed. Even
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if it were supposedly impartial, no one would believe it or accept that. Not only should we have an impartial broadcaster, but it must be seen to be impartial.

The hon. Gentleman needs to come back, if he wants to go down this route, with a properly worked up Bill and with worked up proposals to put before the House. He cannot ask the House to abolish what is there without putting something else in its place. When I made that point in an intervention earlier, I was told that I was wrong to say that the BBC would cease straight away because it would have until December 2012. He would at least give the BBC a chance to broadcast the Olympics in London, which I hope it will. That is not an answer. If we are going to debate this matter, we have to have a properly worked up alternative before the House.

The Bill should not proceed today. It will not proceed today. Even if it did receive its Second Reading, it cannot become law, as the hon. Gentleman knows, but as someone who is a regular attender on Fridays, he should know better than to put before the House such a badly drafted, half-baked piece of legislation.

12.56 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Barbara Follett): This has been a long and, sometimes, very interesting debate. The Bill proposes that the television licence fee be abolished, although it does not offer, as other hon. Members have mentioned, an alternative.

Let me outline the Government's position on the proposal of the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope). The Government position on the licence fee is well established. The future of that fee and the funding of the BBC were addressed fully in the recent BBC charter review, which was completed in 2006. The review concluded that, compared to the alternatives,

in other words, it is the least worst option. It is a very difficult subject and I fully understand why that phrase was used. Under the terms of the BBC’s royal charter, therefore, the BBC will continue to be funded by the licence fee for the duration of the charter, which is in force until the end of 2016.

I will explain shortly how the charter review reached that conclusion. As a first step, however, it may be helpful to set out why large sums of public money are put into broadcasting and not into other creative industries such as the music industry or publishing. There are two main reasons for that. First, broadcasting can contribute to society in ways that other media do not. The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) and my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) illustrated that well. Secondly, as citizens, we would not get everything that we have come to expect from broadcasting if we relied on commercial providers alone.

The case for public funding of the BBC and for public service broadcasting is in general based on the benefits that it can bring to society, which have had a very good airing in the Chamber. That includes “Yesterday in Parliament”, which several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey), mentioned. That programme has a niche audience, but one that appreciates the time given to the subject.

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