Tue 8th December 2020
BBC (Transparency) (Commons Chamber)
1st reading: House of Commons
2 interactions (1,371 words)

BBC (Transparency)

(1st reading: House of Commons)
Tuesday 8th December 2020

(2 months, 4 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber

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Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

Alun Cairns Portrait Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con)
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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the BBC to publish specified information including all invoices over £500, expenditure by region, details of staff remuneration and exit payments, payments to personal service companies and other contractors, and the outside earnings of staff; and for connected purposes.

The BBC (Transparency) Bill is a positive move to support the BBC, to help it adapt and modernise its standards of governance, transparency and the need to meet the public’s expectations of value for money. The Bill will require the BBC to publish every invoice in excess of £500 and to take other steps to support greater transparency of its budget approaching £5 billion. It demands that the corporation take positive steps to support scrutiny across this important British flagship organisation. The Bill is aimed at helping to bring about a cultural change in the BBC, making it more open and transparent in support of everything it does.

I raise these issues as one who values what the BBC can achieve. As the Government consider the future of the licence fee, this debate and proposal are timely. They help the BBC meet the Secretary of State’s call as to how it intends to make savings and the fact that the organisation needs to reflect the entire nation. The context is that the licence fee is the most regressive form of taxation. That was the primary complaint against the poll tax, but of course this is a television tax, at a time when there is ever-increasing choice in the marketplace, with paid-for and free output. In considering the impact on households, particularly the poorest households at this time, it is vital that we scrutinise spend to secure the very best value for the licence fee for the public. Increased transparency will help the BBC respond to ever-increasing demands from the public.

Since 2010, all Government Departments and local authorities in England have been required to publish invoices in excess of £500. This key step helped to change spending patterns and the culture of how public bodies work. The move towards transparency facilitated competition, encouraged new approaches to spending, and attracted more organisations, particularly small businesses, to bid for contracts. Ultimately, it helped to drive better value for money and enhanced diversity in the supply chain.

Many Members will recall the BBC’s resistance to publish salaries of its star performers. Some called it a “poacher’s charter” at the time. As a strong supporter of publication of the data, I can remember even some senior Government colleagues resisting the call, for fear that it would lead to a levelling up of salaries. However, there was a determination among enough of us to ensure that it formed part of the agreement around the last charter renewal. Although the salary levels shocked many, equally importantly they disclosed the disparity between the pay of male and female presenters. As a result, we have seen salaries of some male presenters fall—some would argue by not enough—and the salaries of some female presenters increase. Now, whatever one’s view of the salary levels—yes, there remains much concern around the £1.75 million for one and £1.4 million for another—at least we can have an honest debate about the value of the contribution they make. Public scrutiny also exposed wrongdoing that led to some staff pursuing cases for equal pay. This would not have happened without demands for greater transparency from the public.

Loopholes still exist, but the Bill’s influence extends well beyond the corporation’s current approach. We cannot ignore the fact that some of the BBC’s highest-profile shows and performers are contracted to BBC Studios. Expenditure data of BBC Studios is not shared in the same way, yet they still operate with the benefit of the licence fee. While that is the case, it is not like any other commercial organisation, and its expenditure should be scrutinised equally. Current standards of transparency only give us a fraction of the picture and lead to suspicion among the public. We should not have to go through the same debate again about an organisation that capitalises on the benefit that the licence fee brings. After all, it is public money, not the BBC’s money.

Elsewhere, concerns have been expressed over other payments the BBC has made, such as golden goodbyes, the payment of tax bills of some of its personalities, and a huge increase—£38 million—in the budget to collect the licence fee, which, if it is not paid of course, could result in a criminal record and even imprisonment. Some people believe that this policy is discriminatory. Many more women than men are charged, purely through their circumstance, so it seems that while some people benefit significantly from the licence fee, others are criminalised as part of the process.

The Government’s central mission since the election has been the levelling-up agenda, and I believe that the licence fee expenditure can play a part. Statistics show that half the BBC’s network programming budget is spent in London at a remarkably consistent level year in, year out. Although the north of England saw a boost in network programme spend to almost 20% in 2016, by last year that level had fallen to 14%. I also recognise that this is not the whole picture, because network programming is only part of the £5 billion budget.

Publication of all invoices over £500 would enable spending patterns to be analysed and all budgets to be considered. If we included contractors, commissions and post-production work, I expect that the London bias would be much greater than 50%. We should also question central administrative services, HR accounting, commissioning and other forms of spend. Those could easily be located across the country to follow the excellent, positive moves that the BBC has made towards the location of its production hubs.

This BBC transparency Bill would allow colleagues and members of the public to see where all the licence fee was being spent across the country and to form a view. Salford has seen significant growth over recent years, but it would be interesting to see whether that had been achieved to the cost of other blue wall areas in the north-west or the north-east. As an example, Cardiff has seen a welcome increase in commitment, but that centralisation in a city has come at cost to other parts of Wales. I would hate to see the growth in Manchester coming at cost to other parts of the region, unless, of course, there was a good reason and a value-for-money case behind the decision. The public could make a judgment.

These issues come into particular focus as the BBC responds to public concerns over a diverse range of challenges: Ofcom’s worrying report on impartiality, the removal of free licences from the over-75s and the tactics used to secure the “Panorama” interview with the Princess of Wales 25 years ago, which, if true, will cause shockwaves across communities.

I pay tribute to Tim Davie for the changes that he is making, including stronger guidance on social media activity and on outside interests, as well as establishing a judge-led inquiry on the “Panorama” interview. All these are welcome, but we still need to revolutionise the BBC’s transparency culture. This Bill is intended to support Tim Davie to bring about change, and to help the BBC to regain the confidence of the public and to secure the very best value for money across all its activities.

We are approaching the BBC charter mid-term review. This would be the perfect time to see the changes that this Bill and the public call for.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Alun Cairns, Julian Knight, Mr William Wragg, Mrs Heather Wheeler, Sir Bernard Jenkin, Dame Cheryl Gillan, Mel Stride, Jeremy Wright, Karen Bradley, Jackie Doyle-Price, Robert Halfon and Andrew Bowie present the Bill.

Alun Cairns accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 15 January, and to be printed (Bill 226).

Business of the House (Today)

Ordered,

That, at today’s sitting, the Speaker shall put the questions necessary to bring to a conclusion proceedings on the first Ways and Means resolution relating to Taxation (Post-transition Period) at 7.00 pm, if not previously concluded.—(David Rutley.)