John Whittingdale debates involving the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport during the 2019 Parliament

Tue 21st July 2020
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Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation: Advisory Board and Future Focus

John Whittingdale Excerpts
Friday 10th September 2021

(1 month, 2 weeks ago)

Written Statements

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Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
John Whittingdale Portrait The Minister for Media and Data (Mr John Whittingdale)
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The Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation sits at the heart of the Government’s ambitious data agenda, and will play a critical role in helping the UK Government to deliver on the priorities set out in the national data strategy. The CDEI is the UK Government’s expert body on the trustworthy use of data and data-driven technologies, including AI.

Today, we are announcing changes to the CDEI’s role and the makeup of its advisory board. Building on the insights of the CDEI’s first two years of operation, and having conducted a robust internal review, it is clear that more active support is needed to facilitate responsible innovation on data use across the economy. The CDEI is well placed to play this role, and having listened carefully to the public’s views through our consultation on the National Data Strategy, I have decided that this should be the priority for the CDEI’s next phase of work. It should be concentrating on current Government priorities with the primary role of operationalising Government’s data and Al policy. The CDEI’s purpose is making sure that responsible data-driven innovation in complex areas actually happens, boosting the UK’s tech and research competitiveness, and supporting the transformation of the use of data and AI by the public and private sectors.

When working in partnership with organisations, the CDEI will deliver, test and refine trustworthy approaches to data and AI governance, and address barriers to innovation. It will operationalise concepts such as “transparency” and “accountability” in the real world, and build the foundations for public trust in the use of data and AI. In doing so, it will help the UK to capitalise on the societal and economic opportunities posed by data and data-driven technologies, while managing the risks.

The CDEI is already working with partners to pilot tech and data policy use cases in a number of sectors including local government, transport, online safety, recruitment and social care. Given these new objectives and activities, the CDEI’s current status as an expert committee is adequate and we are not planning for it to be placed on a statutory footing at this time. Similarly, the Government will not require the CDEI to report to Parliament in future separately from its parent department, DCMS. The CDEI will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny in the same way as any other aspect of departmental activity.

To support the delivery of an ambitious new work programme closely aligned with Government priorities, we have appointed an advisory board of leading experts to support the CDEI in its new phase of operations. The open recruitment campaign attracted a stellar group of proven innovators in data use. We are grateful that several outstanding members of the existing board have agreed to continue in their posts as well, including the Deputy Chair, Edwina Dunn. Edwina has agreed to act as interim Chair, while we continue our search for a permanent Chair.

[HCWS277]

John Whittingdale Portrait The Minister for Media and Data (Mr John Whittingdale)
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Today, I am pleased to announce to the House that the Government are launching a consultation on reforms to the UK’s regime for the protection of personal data. This consultation will be open for 10 weeks, from 10 September 2021 until 19 November 2021.

The Government will have the freedom to create a bold new data regime outside of the EU. The UK can now reshape its approach to regulation and seize opportunities with its new regulatory freedoms, helping to drive growth, innovation and competition across the country.

This consultation is the first step in delivering on that objective and the next step in the Government's plan for digital regulation, while building on our groundbreaking action to keep people safe online through the Online Safety Bill. Furthermore we recently published plans to establish a new pro-competition regime for digital markets and outlined that we will be seeking to agree data adequacy agreements with leading economies such as the US and Singapore.

Data is a huge strategic asset. As set out in mission 2 of the UK’s national data strategy, the Government want to create a more pro-growth and trusted regime for personal data protection. We want to unlock the power of this data to drive innovation and boost the economy, while continuing to protect people’s safety and privacy. This is one of our 10 tech priorities.

In order to do this, the UK needs agile and adaptable data protection laws that enhance its global reputation as a hub for responsible data-driven business that respects high standards of data protection. A responsive framework will enable responsible innovation and a focus on privacy outcomes that avoids imposing any rules today that become obsolete tomorrow as technology evolves.

Any data protection regime requires active interpretation and pragmatic application to new and emerging technologies, such as machine learning. Over three years after its introduction, however, there is persistent uncertainty about how to apply the current regime, aspects of which are unnecessarily complex or vague. This risks throwing up barriers to responsible data access, use and sharing.

The reforms outlined in this consultation will:

Strengthen our position as a science superpower, by simplifying data use by researchers and developers of AI and other cutting edge technologies.

Build on the unprecedented and life-saving collaboration between the public and private sectors in using data responsibly to tackle the covid-19 pandemic.

Secure the UK’s status as a global hub for the free and responsible flow of personal data, complementing our ambitious agenda for new trade deals and data adequacy agreements with some of the world’s fastest growing economies.

Reinforce the responsibility of businesses to keep personal information safe and encourage investment in effective compliance activities that reflect how they operate and their users’ expectations.

Ensure that the Information Commissioner’s Office remains a world-leading regulator, empowered to ensure people can use data responsibly to achieve economic and social goals.

Throughout this process, the UK intends to maintain its high standards of data protection, while taking a pragmatic and risk-based approach, rather than one that over-emphasises bureaucratic exercises. Far from being a barrier to innovation or trade, we know that regulatory certainty and high data protection standards allow businesses and consumers to thrive.

The reforms proposed in the Government’s consultation will create a set of new, ambitious, pro-growth and innovation-friendly data protection rules and regulations that underpins the trustworthy use of data for an even better UK data rights regime.

These reforms have clear benefits for both citizens and businesses. We are proposing to introduce more flexibility in how organisations embed privacy management in their processes alongside greater transparency about how their users’ data is protected and clearer procedures for handling complaints. We propose taking action to tackle nuisance calls which can disproportionately affect the most vulnerable people in our society. We will explore whether ICO should have powers to impose higher fines and carry out audits of companies which are responsible for breaching direct marketing rules. We will continue to look into voluntary industry-led action; and explore whether to mandate communications providers to do more to block calls and texts at source or to provide free-of-charge call-blocking services.

Furthermore, our proposed reforms will clarify how all kinds of businesses can navigate the data protection regime to innovate responsibly with personal data. We are also proposing measures that would require the ICO to recognise and account for how its regulatory activity on data protection may impact on competition and innovation in the digital economy.

Internationally, our reforms will allow us to operate a risk-based and proportionate regime that allows the UK to strike deals with some of the fastest growing economies in the world while keeping people’s data safe and secure.

These reforms will keep people’s data safe and secure, while ushering in a new golden age of growth and innovation right across the UK, as we build back better and I hope you will all join me in supporting this work.

Further details can be found in the consultation and supportive documents, available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/data-a-new-direction.

A copy of the consultation and the analysis of expected impact will also be placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

[HCWS276]

John Whittingdale Portrait The Minister for Media and Data (Mr John Whittingdale)
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I am pleased to inform the House that the Government are, today, publishing an update on the national data strategy which sets out our approach to monitoring and evaluating the strategy. It also launches a 12-week call for evidence on the development of an indicator suite to support implementation of the strategy.

The national data strategy was originally published for consultation in September 2020, setting out for the first time the Government’s ambitions to unlock the power of data in a single publication. The consultation confirmed that the strategy framework was fit for purpose, and the Government published a response to the consultation in May 2021 to confirm that our focus would now turn to implementation.

The monitoring and evaluation update published today sets out in more detail our approach to implementation, including how we will track delivery of Government interventions, assess their effectiveness, and plan for further interventions in the future.

We are also calling for evidence to develop an indicator suite that will track developments across the data ecosystem. This is the first time such a product has been produced by Government for data use in the UK. To tackle this challenge, and in the spirit of collaboration with which the national data strategy has been developed to date, we are seeking the widest possible input to inform the indicator suite’s development, to create a product which can be of value to all members of the data ecosystem. We will provide an update on the development of the indicator suite in due course.

More broadly, we will continue to engage with all relevant stakeholders to implement the national data strategy, including working through the national data strategy forum to help shape the development of the future vision for the strategy.

A copy of this update will be placed in the libraries of both Houses.

[HCWS278]

Review of the Gambling Act 2005

John Whittingdale Excerpts
Scott Benton Portrait Scott Benton
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The hon. Member makes a valid point about the so-called black market or offshore gambling. Billions of pounds of UK customers’ money is spent on black market websites every single year. Of course, the problem is that, unlike UK online gaming operators, those offshore operators are not regulated and the propensity for online harm for people who have a problem is much higher. I thank him for raising that important point.

The key decisions in this review need to be taken by Ministers and Parliament. It is vital that the Government hear the views of both the industry and those who have concerns about problem gambling. I stress that the review has to be grounded in the evidence rather than blind ideology. We must not lose sight of the enjoyment that millions of people get from gambling, with recent polling suggesting that seven in 10 people in the UK gamble every single year and that 73% of people see betting as a leisure activity. This approach cannot be compromised by what some perceive to be the perspective advocated by the Gambling Commission.

Questions have to be asked about whether the Gambling Commission has extended its role beyond that expected of a regulator. Over the years, it has been said that the commission has taken a stance similar to the personal feelings of its chief executive at any particular time. Although the commission is there to support businesses and enable them to operate within the guidelines, it has on occasion unnecessarily made negative comments, been overly critical of the industry as a whole and faced criticism for being obstructive to firms trying to engage with it.

There is a real risk that over-regulation and intrusive precautions could push people towards the black market. Indeed, a PwC study has estimated that the size of the active black market in the UK has doubled in the last couple of years, and over 400,000 customers were predicted to have used an unlicensed operator in the past year, with an estimated spend of around £2.8 billion. The existence and potential growth of the black market poses a significant threat in terms of lost tax revenue, lost jobs, limited player protections and fewer money laundering protections.

When appraising the opportunities for necessary changes in regulation, we must take proportionate steps to continue to protect the small number of people who do have problems with gambling. The estimated rate of those with a gambling problem is around 0.5% of the adult population and has been stable for the past 20 years—a very small number in comparison with rates reported in other nations around the world, which is testament to the safeguards already put in place by the sector here in the UK. However, we must ensure that the necessary support is offered to those people. Those I have spoken to in the industry have acknowledged the need for such protections and appreciate the importance of protecting problem gamblers and young people. Over the last couple of years, the industry has voluntarily taken steps to increase safeguards for vulnerable people, including increasing funding for GambleAware, reducing TV advertising and educating children on the risks of gambling, as well as investing heavily in technologies that better identify and interact with customers who might start to have problems.

Above what the industry has voluntarily committed for funding for research, education and treatment for problem gambling, a blanket levy across the industry has been mooted. The evidence would suggest that this is simply not necessary. The Gambling Commission’s report reviewing the research, education and treatment arrangements states that a plausible sum for annual requirements would be in the range of £21 million to £67 million. I understand that, in 2019, the largest members of the Betting and Gaming Council agreed to increase funding for RET by up to £100 million over the next four years and committed to giving 1% of gross gambling yield to RET by 2023, bringing the total funding within that required range. A blanket levy would therefore be unnecessary and not be of any additional benefit to consumers. It is worth bearing in mind that these funds are already given voluntarily by the industry over and above the billions of pounds paid in taxes and duties to the Exchequer.

I understand that the Gambling Commission is looking into a system that aims to restrict a customer’s gambling spend to a limit based on a person’s discretionary income —known as affordability—to try to protect gamblers. Inherently, without an incredibly invasive and cross-industry system in place, this is a deeply flawed concept. All it would require to circumnavigate the limit would be for the player to open an account with another operator. Without the individual’s spend with all operators being tracked, their affordability limit would thus instantly be doubled. Most regular gamblers already have multiple accounts. Instead, this would create an off-putting and burdensome process for customers who wish to place a few bets simply for fun. There is no evidence to suggest that this reduces problem gambling, only that it reduces gambling overall. It is also morally questionable—where would all this end? Should we place affordability criteria on other areas of peoples’ lives, perhaps limiting spending on fast food, alcohol or anything else that people deem to be potentially addictive?

Further questions would also need answering if this were to be implemented. It would be near impossible to ask all the land-based gambling sector, including betting shops and casinos, to manage this directive. Would they even fall under the same regulations imposed on online operators? If not, that clearly creates an unlevel playing field for businesses while undermining the whole affordability strategy. How would all this actually work in practice?

Understandably, the whole industry, from bingo operators to casinos to sports betting companies, believes this to be an ill-conceived, blunt instrument that targets all gamblers. Its only real consequence is to reduce gambling overall, rather than focusing on protecting those vulnerable people with a genuine gambling problem. It is right that operators intervene where harms are identified, and support must always be made available, but this completely ignores the demand for gambling and, if we are not careful, will turn people instead to the black market if they are asked to provide intrusive documentation such as pay slips.

Flutter, a leading operator in the industry, has developed its own “affordability triple step”, three layers of protection as part of a flexible risk-based approach, while Entain has developed the ARC—advanced responsibility and care—platform, which uses cutting-edge behavioural science to spot whenever someone’s play becomes problematic, so that an intervention can immediately take place. Such schemes are just a couple of examples of the industry proactively taking steps to protect customers without the need for an over-reactive and invasive approach that targets all customers. Market research suggests that 40% of customers would not comply with affordability checks, and three quarters of them would look to evade restrictions by opening other accounts, playing in various physical locations and turning to unregulated online gambling sites, as alluded to by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).

Also of concern, for many of the same reasons, is the so-called single view of the customer, a proposal for a national database that will contain the betting information of every single gambler, as well as any personal information on their betting behaviour and information gathered about their financial position. The industry has been looking at more appropriate options whereby it shares information about those who are most at risk and have been flagged as having problems. It is far less intrusive to focus on those who need support rather than on every single person who likes a bet. Although the legal case is uncertain under general data protection regulation legislation, the Gambling Commission is looking to implement the proposal unilaterally. As previously mentioned, such policy proposals must be considered only within the context of the Gambling Act review.

Advertising and sponsorship provide valuable support for sports throughout this country. Betting sponsorship of sports such as horse racing, football, rugby league, darts, and snooker amounts to more than £70 million per year. Many clubs in the English football league are adamant that they could not survive without the income that they gain from gambling operators, which would not easily be replaced.

Importantly, advertising plays a role in keeping consumers safe, allowing operators to distinguish their offers from unregulated websites and communicating safer gambling messages to drive awareness and usage. Sky Bet’s Three Simple Tools campaign resulted in a 69% increase in the use of cool-off periods; a 10% rise in customers setting deposit limits; and 83% of Sky Bet customers using the profit-and-loss tool. There is little evidence to suggest that gambling advertising leads to problem gambling. In any case, the industry has voluntarily introduced a whistle-to-whistle advertising ban during live sport; support for safer gambling campaigns; and the newly released code on Adtech to minimise under-25-year-olds’ exposure to gambling advertising. The cumulative effect of these measures should be considered when we look to place any further restrictions on this already tightly regulated area.

Although the number of reported issues is incredibly small, when problems arise the Gambling Commission does not deal with individual complaints from consumers. That helps to build a case for an independent consumer-redress system, such as an ombudsman, for regulatory complaints. That would improve the process and make it more consistent for those who raise concerns.

Finally, with regard to the main commercial operators in the gambling industry, there are several needs for land-based casinos in the gambling review, but I do not want to give my right hon. Friend the Minister a sense of déjà vu, so I shall just reiterate my thanks to him for his thoughtful and engaging response to the recent Westminster Hall debate on some of the asks from the sector, the review of a super-casino and the opportunities that one could bring to a town such as Blackpool.

Quite distinct from the industry’s commercial operators sits the successful charity lottery sector. Charity lotteries exist purely to generate funds for good causes across Britain, with advertising fundamental to their ability to deliver this funding. It is vital that Ministers recognise, as the gambling review progresses, the distinct contribution of charity lotteries and the positive role that advertising plays in helping them to support good causes. In Blackpool, for example, the People’s Postcode Lottery has funded small grants totalling over £100,000, supporting local organisations such as Donna’s Dream House and the Blackpool football club community trust. Given that lotteries are widely seen as being low-risk for any problem gambling, changes to policy must allow them to thrive so that they can continue to do more for the good causes they support throughout this country.

In conclusion, I welcome the Minister’s further engagement with this important review, and I look forward to his response to many of the key issues alluded to in this speech, both in this debate and before the review finally comes back to Parliament in the autumn.

To finish on a political note, my constituency and many more like it with significant working-class communities were hard-won by supporters of this Government. Betting, and the sports that depend on betting, are part of our national culture. What is more, many of these people are sick and tired of being told what they can and cannot do, so the Government must tread very carefully here. Completing the review will not be an easy task. I am fully aware that the Minister will have to weigh up competing viewpoints, but I hope he can progress with a rational and evidence-based assessment that takes into account the need to protect the small number of people who have a gambling problem with the huge economic and cultural benefits that the industry has across the UK. The voters will not thank us if we get the balance wrong.

John Whittingdale Portrait The Minister for Media and Data (Mr John Whittingdale)
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I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton) on obtaining this debate, which comes hard on the heels of the debate we had last week in Westminster Hall about casinos. I also thank him for his work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on betting and gaming and all the members of the group for their engagement with us over the gambling review and the assessment of what further measures are necessary.

Let me start by making clear that the Government have a very simple vision for the gambling sector. We want the millions of people who choose to gamble in Britain to be able to do so in a safe way. The sector needs to have up-to-date legislation and protections, with a strong regulator with the powers and resources needed to oversee a responsible industry that offers customer choice while protecting players. As the Minister for sport, heritage and tourism, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) set out last December, the aim of our gambling review is to ensure that those objectives can be delivered in the digital age and that we have the balance right between protecting people from harm and maintaining freedom of choice in how they spend their money and leisure time.

Gambling is a legitimate leisure activity, and there are millions of gamblers in this country. In the year to March, 40% of all adults surveyed had taken part in at least one form of gambling in the previous four weeks, which is down from 47% in the pre-pandemic year to March 2020. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South has mentioned—indeed, it was endorsed by the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar)—businesses such as casinos and the bingo provide jobs and opportunities for social engagement in towns and cities right across the country. In some areas, online gambling is also an important source of skilled technology jobs.

While every single type of gambling comes with an element of risk, some forms are undoubtedly associated with higher risks than others. When I first took on responsibility for this brief, one of the first meetings I had was with the lived experience advisory group set up by the Gambling Commission to hear from those who have suffered from gambling addiction, members of their families and those affected by it. We know that something like 300,000 people are classified as problem gamblers in this country, and we are very much aware that it can devastate not just their lives but those around them. This morning I had a meeting with the Gambling with Lives charity, in which it described some of the most tragic cases where gambling addiction had certainly contributed to someone’s decision to take their own life.

We already have a public health approach to gambling regulation, with preventive rules designed to minimise the risk of harm to all consumers, and the provision of treatment to help those who suffer harm. However, in this review, we are taking a very close look at whether further measures are needed to deliver the Government’s objectives and to protect people in proportionate but robust ways.

Of course, that has to be based on evidence, which is why we started with the call for evidence. That closed at the end of March and received around 16,000 responses. I am grateful to the huge range of individuals and organisations that made submissions, including representatives of the industry, academics, researchers, charities, campaign groups and, as I said earlier, Members of this House and the other place. It is our intention to publish a White Paper later this year, which will set out the Government’s vision for change and allow all those with an interest to continue to shape policy. Ahead of that, I can give some indication of one or two of the areas in which we are thinking of making further change.

It has become clear that we need to take a holistic approach to gambling reform, recognising where parallels apply across sectors and issues that have traditionally been thought of as entirely distinct. We need to design a coherent package that is flexible enough to respond to future changes and innovation.

I was the Opposition spokesman during the passage of the Gambling Act 2005. Online gambling was hardly mentioned during the entire course of the debate on that Bill. Then, it was in its infancy, yet now it has become one of the major forms of gambling, and in some ways it has created greater risks. It has transformed the industry, and certain safeguards have come with it. Operators can and must use customers’ data to identify where they may be at risk of harm and to intervene accordingly. It is also now possible to self-exclude from all forms of online gambling through one single request. Since April last year, membership of GAMSTOP has been a requirement for all licensed operators.

On the other hand, online gambling has given rise to new products, which are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That challenges the assumption in the 2005 Act that controlling availability is a way of controlling risk. As I said, online gambling now accounts for more revenue than gambling in person, and the shift in how people gamble has become even clearer over the last 18 months as a result of the pandemic.

John Spellar Portrait John Spellar
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It is not just online but offshore, which very often is unregulated.

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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The right hon. Gentleman is quite right to draw attention to the threat posed by the black market, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) did in his intervention. That is certainly something we need to bear in mind. It is very important that we create a safe space where people are given protection if they are gambling online, but we do not want to drive them away from the regulated sector and into the black market. That is certainly something that we will bear in mind during our consideration of these things.

We are looking at whether further controls for play online would be effective in preventing gambling harm, including whether greater controls are needed at account or product level. We are also working closely with the Gambling Commission on its parallel work to improve how operators interact with customers, and we will ensure that any new checks that it introduces to increase protections for those who are financially vulnerable, binge gambling or losing significant amounts over time harmonise with the aims of our own review.

While it is the case that more people are now gambling online, the land-based sector is still very important in our gambling landscape, and of course it accounts for more than four fifths of the jobs in gambling. I absolutely recognise the important social role that some gambling clubs play in communities. We know in particular that bingo clubs attract a wide demographic of players who rely on those places as spaces to socialise and see friends. I am looking forward to my visit to Buzz Bingo in Clacton-on-Sea on Monday.

We recognise the importance both of a well regulated sector that keeps people safe wherever they choose to gamble and of a strong gambling industry that supports jobs. I will not repeat what I said last week about the casino sector, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South knows, there is a need to look at the existing restrictions within that sector. In some cases, they have become steadily more anomalous, and they clearly need to be updated.

Another matter that we are considering is consumer redress, which has featured in a lot of the submissions to our call for evidence and in the public discourse. It is a condition of their licence that gambling operators must provide customers with free access to alternative dispute resolution services to handle complaints. That applies where customers are unhappy with an operator’s service or its response to a complaint, for example about paying out on a bet.

I recognise, however, that the current arrangements deal only with contractual disputes and do not allow for individual resolution if a complaint is about whether the operator has breached its social responsibility obligations, for example by failing to step in when someone shows signs that their gambling is getting out of control. That means that consumers may end up having to pursue action through the courts. Understandably, concerns have been raised that the current system makes it difficult for individuals to seek compensation or support. We are looking carefully at the evidence in that area.

My hon. Friend talked about the Gambling Commission. The commission has broad powers under the Gambling Act that enable it to tackle new and emerging risk through licence conditions without the Government having to take legislation through Parliament. In the past 18 months, for example, the commission has banned gambling on credit cards, tightened rules on VIP schemes and introduced new rules to limit the intensity of online slots, as well as permanently banning reverse withdrawals. We are consulting on and have now approved proposals for a fees uplift for the commission, which will take effect from 1 October for remote operators and from April next year for the land-based sector. This will allow the commission to continue to cover its costs. As my hon. Friend will know, a new chief executive, Mr Andrew Rhodes, has just been appointed to the commission and we are in the process of selecting a new chair. The commission is undergoing a reboot and we are looking at its powers and performance as part of the review.

My hon. Friend mentioned advertising. It is too early, I think, to say where we will end up on the issues around it, but we are looking at the evidence very closely indeed. It is worth emphasising that there are already many rules that govern gambling advertising in this country. The UK advertising codes make it clear that all gambling advertising must be socially responsible, that it must not be targeted at under-18s and that its content must not encourage irresponsible gambling behaviour. Gambling adverts are not permitted to be shown in or around children’s programmes. Compliance with the codes is a licence condition, so breaches can and do result in enforcement action by the Gambling Commission. Licence conditions also set out additional controls on gambling advertising, and the gambling industry code for socially responsible advertising includes rules such as the 9 pm watershed on most television advertising and the whistle-to-whistle advertising ban around live sports.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing us an opportunity to debate the issues. As I say, work is ongoing, particularly on scrutinising the 16,000 submissions that we have received as part of the review. I look forward to coming back to the House later this year with a White Paper that sets out our conclusions and recommendations.

Madam Deputy Speaker, may I end by wishing you, my hon. Friends, all hon. Members and all those who work for us so well in this House a very happy recess?

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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I echo what has been said many times today: we are all extremely grateful for the amazing service given by everybody who works in this amazing building during these very difficult times in order to keep our precious democracy working, and working well. Let us hope that when we return it will be back to normal and working even better. I wish everybody a happy recess.

Question put and agreed to.

Channel 4: Privatisation

John Whittingdale Excerpts
Wednesday 21st July 2021

(3 months, 1 week ago)

Westminster Hall

Read Full debate Read Hansard Text
Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Christian Matheson Portrait Christian Matheson
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I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I have a presumption against privatising successful public assets, simply because among Conservatives there is an ideological presumption in favour of privatisation. However, if he will bear with me, he may well find that I address that point in my speech—at least, I hope I do.

It may well be right once in a while to review the make-up of Channel 4. However, it seems that the Government have simply presented a done-deal proposal rather than an inclusive and thought-out consultation. The decision to press ahead with the proposal to privatise Channel 4 has surprised many in the industry, as there does not seem to be any solid evidence behind the Government’s proposals. In fact, as we have heard, Channel 4 has just had one of its best financial years on record.

Many people do not realise that Channel 4 is publicly owned but funds itself almost entirely through advertising, and it reinvests any profits into new British programming. In other words, although it is publicly owned, it does not cost the taxpayer a single penny. When the advertising market dropped last year because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Government saw an opportunity to attack the broadcaster once again. However, despite the hit to advertising spend, Channel 4 has bounced back stronger than ever. It has reported a record £74 million pre-tax surplus and an increase in viewing figures across all its platforms, and it is on track to top £1 billion in revenues for the first time this year. Its streaming viewers are up by 30% on last year, the linear portfolio is up by 4% and there have been 4.2 billion content views on social platforms.

As hon. Members have alluded to, we are all aware that the Government have had a bumpy relationship with “Channel 4 News” and a number of close run-ins with it—indeed, that is true not just for the Government, but for MPs from across the political spectrum. However, the Government cannot simply run away from scrutiny and throw a tantrum every time they dislike something. The Conservatives—or, I say with respect to the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield, some Conservatives—complain about a cancel culture, but this is a perfect example of the sinister trend with this Government of closing down or selling off any mechanism that can scrutinise or oppose them. In view of the figures mentioned earlier and the information available, can the Minister assure us that any decisions on the future of Channel 4 are made on the basis of concrete evidence and not simply based on an ideological vendetta against the broadcaster?

Not only do the Government’s proposals make no sense, but they would be catastrophic for the creative sector, particularly independent British TV companies. Channel 4’s success has been instrumental in helping to grow the UK’s world-beating creative industry. The channel has invested £12 billion in the independent production sector, and each year it works with more than 300 production companies.

Channel 4 has also been investing in regional TV and production, and giving voice to communities right across the UK, long before “levelling up” became the latest empty Tory slogan; other hon. Members have already mentioned that today. The channel is crucial in both representing people and providing jobs for people right across the country.

As well as people directly employed by Channel 4, the channel supports over 10,000 jobs in the supply chain, 3,000 of which are in the UK’s nations and regions. As hon. Members have mentioned, Channel 4 is now a truly national organisation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West has said, it has opened up its new headquarters in Leeds; he and Tracy Brabin, our former parliamentary colleague, are fighting hard to support that move. Channel 4 has set up creative hubs in Glasgow and Bristol, to make the channel more reflective of UK life. Nearly 400 Channel 4 roles will be located outside London by the end of 2021, and the channel is also committed to investing at least 50% of its spend outside London from 2023, bringing jobs and investment to all parts of the UK.

Changing the very DNA of Channel 4 will mean that indie TV production companies simply will not have the opportunities that they have now. They will be hit by a double whammy. Not only will they not be able to make programmes, but they will not even be able to own the IP, and they will essentially become service provider companies to potential buyers. The plan would suppress the brilliant entrepreneurship and innovation of the UK’s production industry. If the Government’s proposals go ahead, they will clip the wings of one of the most successful industries in Britain.

The creative industries are a key growth area and will be crucial to the UK’s economic recovery after the pandemic. Office for National Statistics data show that in summer 2019, 9% growth in the TV and film sector was key to the UK avoiding recession. The sector has been growing at five times the rate of the UK economy and contributes £111.7 billion to it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West and the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) have asked, what assessment has the Department made of the impact of its proposal on the wider creative sector? Was an impact assessment made when drawing up the proposal?

The proposal would also impact on the UK on the global stage. Channel 4 is a national asset with a global reach. As an exporter of uniquely produced content, Channel 4 projects British talent, culture and soft power around the world, as was mentioned by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone). It was created to reflect the cultural diversity of the UK through programming, boosting Britain’s reputation overseas and showcasing British values to the rest of the world.

Channel 4 has commissioned formats and shows that producers can then sell around the world, helping to launch hundreds of UK creative businesses on to the global stage and generating British IP. The UK independent sector is now worth £3 billion, and it exports soft power around the world through formats, talent and sales.

There is also success at the award ceremonies. Channel 4 spends more on British film than any other UK broadcaster does. Film4 films have collectively won 37 Academy awards and 84 BAFTAs. As the hon. Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) mentioned, in 2021 “The Father” won best actor and best screenplay at the Oscars. From the outside it looks as though the Government are punishing success. In reality, they are passing on British success to their mates and big companies in America, once again showing where their true loyalties lie.

We all know that big foreign tech companies have only money on their minds, so I simply cannot see them showing any sympathy for Channel 4’s current remit and structure. That is bad news for the TV production industry and the unrepresented voices in the UK. We cannot lose Channel 4’s distinctive remit and let it simply become Channel 4.5—in other words, like Channel 5.

The Government may well argue that this change needs to be made for Channel 4 to be able to keep up and compete with giants such as Netflix, Amazon and Disney+, but they are simply missing the point. Channel 4 was created to be different, diverse and daring, and to champion the under-represented voices of this country. It does not need to splash millions of pounds to compete with Netflix. It simply needs to do what it does best—make fundamentally British content that speaks to and represents British audiences. As we heard, a prime example of this is the fantastic “It’s a Sin”, a masterpiece that broke down barriers and demonstrated the true brilliance and success of Channel 4 and the British TV production industry.

Our TV industry is a British success story. We cannot allow the Government to place a huge “For sale” sign on Channel 4 and lose it to the highest bidder. Great British TV belongs in the UK, and I would very much like it to stay that way.

John Whittingdale Portrait The Minister for Media and Data (Mr John Whittingdale)
- Hansard - -

I thank you, Ms Fovargue, and Mr Deputy Speaker, for presiding over our debate. Neither of you expected to be in this position today, so we appreciate your giving up the time to join us. I also thank the hon. Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle) for securing this debate. As she says, it is a very important subject, so I am glad that the House has an opportunity to debate it.

However, I do not think a single speaker has talked about the revolution taking place in television at the moment. Every speech has been backward looking. Each one has been a list of admittedly terrific programming over the past 40 years, but there has been no looking forward and no reference to what is happening to television viewing and how the landscape is changing. Linear viewing is in rapid decline. Young people are no longer looking at scheduled programmes on the traditional broadcast channels. The competition for eyeballs, which comes from streaming services, a new one of which joins the market almost every few months, is completely changing. Therefore, what we intend and wish to do is look forward. Yes, Channel 4 has a terrific record and is doing well at the moment, but it is the Government’s job to ensure that Channel 4 has a viable future going forward—not this year or next, but in 10 years. That is the purpose of the consultation.

Peter Bottomley Portrait Sir Peter Bottomley
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I think the Minister can be assured that each Member present has read the consultation document. We know that the Government say the structure of broadcasting has changed. We have seen that All 4 has 41%, which is only a little lower than Netflix. Channel 4 is doing all those things. At every paragraph, the Government say, “Change the ownership, and we’ll do xyz.” The only example given by the Government is Royal Mail, looking backwards to 2013. The Minister is right in thinking that we understand what he is going to say, because we have read his document. We are challenging the idea that a new owner is necessary.

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
- Hansard - -

I will come to that. I am sure my hon. Friend has read the consultation document, and it is extraordinary that the arguments, which I believe are strong, have not actually been addressed by any speaker so far.

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The point is that we are looking forward. Will the Minister address two arguments? First, I made the point about Syria—

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
- Hansard - -

I am going to come to those points.

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Only Channel 4 provided the seriousness that was needed on that subject. Secondly, the Minister will find that young people and people across society are accessing “Channel 4 News” in many modern and futuristic ways, so his point about Members being uninformed and looking backwards might require a little elucidation.

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
- Hansard - -

If my right hon. Friend will forgive me, I am going to come to those points. Given the limitations of time, I am anxious to do so.

I do not dispute the list of programmes, many of which are great, made by Channel 4 over the past 40 years. There are some real jewels among a lot of other programming. It was once said that Channel 4 is a public service tail wagged by a very large commercial dog, and that is the consequence of the model under which it operates. I have enjoyed things such as “It’s a Sin” and “Gogglebox”, and I want to talk specifically about “Channel 4 News”.

Occasionally, I have been cross with “Channel 4 News”. I have been just as cross with Sky News and BBC News. Channel 4 is an essential contributor to plurality. It is worth bearing in mind—again, this has not been recognised in the debate—that “Channel 4 News” is not actually produced by Channel 4. It is an ITN production, and ITN has done a terrific job in providing news programming that is different from the other broadcast news services. It has also been extremely successful internationally, as it has an Oscar-nominated newsroom and has won five Emmy awards.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O'Hara
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the Minister give way?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
- Hansard - -

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I am not going to have time to give way.

I absolutely pay tribute to ITN for the work it has done for Channel 4, and it is certainly our intention that, whatever happens to Channel 4, news should remain a major part of its schedule. However, there have been huge changes. When Channel 4 was created, there was a choice between the BBC and ITV. Channel 4 was founded by a Conservative Government in 1982 to provide alternative viewpoints, and it has been very successful in doing that. Since that time, we have seen the advent of satellite television and the coming of digital terrestrial television. Now we have the streaming services, so there has been a huge explosion in choice. Some of that content, which was originally not available and which Channel 4 was set up to provide, is now available in a large number of different places, so Channel 4 needs to adapt to that.

The latest Ofcom report on the future of public service broadcasting states:

“Rapid change in the industry—driven by global commercial trends and a transformation in viewing habits—is making it harder for public service broadcasters to compete for audiences and maintain their current offer… Change needs to happen—and fast.”

That is why we have set up the review of public service broadcasting, and why it is right to consider whether Channel 4 is best placed to continue to thrive under the current ownership model, because there are some worrying signs.

Channel 4 is entirely dependent on advertising, unlike other broadcasters such as ITV, which has successfully diversified into production, or the BBC, which can rely on the licence fee. Channel 4 relies on advertising. More than 90% of its revenue comes from linear TV advertising, and advertising is under pressure. It is likely to come under greater pressure, in part due to the actions that Parliament is going to take in restricting advertising spending on, for instance, foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar, and possibly such spending with respect to gambling, which we are considering at the moment. Therefore, that model is already coming under pressure.

Competition from the streaming services is almost inevitably going to lead to a decline in audience share over time as more and more content is provided by such services, which can outspend Channel 4 by a factor of 10 with respect to how much they can invest in high-quality content.

Reference was made to Channel 4’s performance. Yes, it did well to record a profit this year, but it is worth bearing in mind how it did so. It is not difficult to continue to make a profit if spending on content is cut by £138 million. That is what happened. Channel 4 slashed the budget on content. It did not, incidentally, slash the budget on employment expenditure, which actually went up—all the money came out of content spend. It is difficult to see how that it is going to be able to return to a position of spending the amount that it was previously. Yes, Channel 4 has been supporting independent producers, although the figure that was quoted of support for more than 300 independent producers is not actually correct. The annual report shows that 161 production companies have been supported that actually meet the definition of indies.

Yes, Channel 4 has moved its headquarters to Leeds—against great resistance—and the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) is right to celebrate the fact that he has a new building there, but it is worth bearing in mind that Channel 4 still has a very large and expensive building about 100 yards from where we are today. Therefore, if it is properly committed in that regard, there is a case for it to move more employees and to do more outside London.

There is a question whether private ownership might result in greater investment. I was surprised to hear from my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) that he questions whether it is possible to fulfil public policy purposes and to satisfy shareholders. He will know that any number of utility companies are doing exactly that. I point to examples such as the telecommunications companies, the electricity companies and the gas companies.

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the Minister give way?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
- Hansard - -

I do not think I am going to have time.

I also point to Channel 5. Its spend on content was very small while it was under UK ownership, but when it was bought by Viacom, it became channel of the year and there has been a massive investment.

The one thing I make categorically clear is the reason the Government are looking at the future ownership of Channel 4, which is that we wish to sustain Channel 4. We are concerned that, in the longer term, the model is going to come under ever-increasing pressure and will be unable to deliver the content that we all want to see.

Angela Eagle Portrait Dame Angela Eagle
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the Minister give way?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
- Hansard - -

I am afraid I do not have time.

I want to make it absolutely clear that there is no political agenda attached to this. I am completely committed to an independent Channel 4, and I welcome the fact that it has a questioning news programme. This is not motivated in any way by a political agenda or ideology. It is about sustaining Channel 4 and making sure that it has a viable future. That is why we are having a consultation. It is a consultation.

I want to answer the point about remit. We are asking a question about whether the remit might or might not be amended to take account of changes. It is not a question of removing the remit. In some areas, there may well be a case for strengthening the remit, and there is absolutely no intention to strip the remit away. The remit will be there. Whether it is tweaked in some way, perhaps to increase the requirements for production outside London, is something that we are asking questions about.

I also want to answer the question about the impact assessment. The impact assessment will be determined by the answers to those questions. An impact assessment cannot be carried out before those things have been decided—for instance, what the remit should be, as that will have a huge effect on the impact. All those matters are subject to an open consultation, with no decision taken.

The hon. Member for Wallasey referred to lack of parliamentary time. I can promise her that, if it is decided to change the model, that will require primary legislation. There will be no lack of opportunity for Parliament to debate any changes that we decide to make. There will be an impact assessment at that time. No decision has been taken. It is the job of Government to look forward and to ask how we can best ensure that Channel 4 has a viable future. That is what we are doing.

Angela Eagle Portrait Dame Angela Eagle
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. That is two Chairs in one debate. I am disappointed that the Minister declined to allow me to question him, since this is my debate. I do not think our arguments have been backward looking, and many of us have made the point that Channel 4 is already evolving.

This is the question I would have put to the Minister, had he allowed me to do so: why have the Government made it clear that their preference is for 100% privatisation of Channel 4? If the consultation is open-minded, they would not have been so firm in their view. It appears to me, from reading the documents, that the Government have already decided that they are going to flog off the entirety of Channel 4. They have made that clear in the way the consultation is worded.

Communications Act 2003: 10th Report on Secretary of State’s Functions

John Whittingdale Excerpts
Thursday 8th July 2021

(3 months, 2 weeks ago)

Written Statements

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Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
John Whittingdale Portrait The Minister for Media and Data (Mr John Whittingdale)
- Hansard - -

The Government have today laid a report before Parliament to fulfil their statutory duty under section 390 of the Communications Act 2003. Section 390 of the Communications Act 2003 requires the Secretary of State to prepare and lay before Parliament reports about the performance of the Secretary of State’s functions under the following legislation:

the Communications Act 2003;

the Wireless Telegraphy Act 2006;

the Office of Communications Act 2002; and

the Broadcasting Acts 1990 and 1996.

This rectifies a historic oversight in discharging this statutory duty since the ninth report was laid in February 2014. Notwithstanding this oversight, the Government have been fully transparent because each time a power has been used, the relevant parliamentary procedure has been followed and/or a public/parliamentary announcement has been made. A retrospective report to cover the period to 28 December 2020 is now, however, being laid to correct this.

The Department accepts full responsibility and apologises. Action has been taken to ensure the Department fulfils this statutory duty on an annual basis. The report will be published on gov.uk and a copy of the report will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

[HCWS160]

John Whittingdale Portrait The Minister for Media and Data (Mr John Whittingdale)
- Hansard - -

I am pleased to announce the submission of the UK’s first periodic report to UNESCO on our implementation of the 1954 Hague convention for the protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflict and its two protocols of 1954 and 1999.

The convention and its two protocols are intended to protect cultural property from damage, destruction, looting and unlawful removal during armed conflict. The UK ratified the convention and acceded to its two protocols in 2017 following the passing of the Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Act 2017 which made provision in domestic UK law for the requirements of the convention and protocols.

The report sets out the roles of the UK Government and the devolved Administrations, who are responsible for the safeguarding of cultural property in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland respectively, and the measures each has taken to ensure that we are delivering our obligations under the convention and its protocols.

The report details the ways in which the UK Government have monitored the implementation of the convention and its two protocols over the past four years. It outlines measures taken by the Government, the armed forces and other associated parties including UNESCO, the British Red Cross, Blue Shield, the National Trust and Historic England to ensure that we are delivering our obligations under the convention and its protocols.

The UK Government remain wholly committed to safeguarding cultural heritage in conflict and crisis settings across the world.

The report is available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-uks-first-periodic-report-implementation-of-the-1954-hague-convention-and-protocols.

I will place a copy of the report in the Libraries of both Houses.

[HCWS162]

UK Casino Industry

John Whittingdale Excerpts
Wednesday 7th July 2021

(3 months, 3 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall

Read Full debate Read Hansard Text
Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Scott Benton Portrait Scott Benton
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Thank you, Mr Mundell. Legislation fit for the modern-day customer would also enable casinos to offer a wider range of casino games via electronic terminals. That would allow gamblers to play at much lower stakes than on live tables.

A second inconsistency between the 2005 Act and the 1968 Act relates to the ability to offer sports betting. The new legislation allows for sports betting at the casino, yet the historical legislation does not. There is a relatively small number of casinos in the UK compared with the thousands of licensed betting offices. Therefore, any change to legislation to allow sports betting in casinos would have little effect on the betting offices sector. Casinos would not become the favoured place for sports betting, yet they would be able to offer a complementary service to the casino floor. It is archaic and puzzling that casinos cannot offer sports betting when casino customers can simply pick up their phone, open an app and make a sports bet online. There have been no reported issues from casinos that can offer that facility. Yet again, internationally that means we are lagging behind, because that is normally a standard offering in a casino.

It is not just placing bets that people increasingly do electronically. Society is rapidly moving away from using physical cash in all transactions, with electronic payments estimated to be used in up to 80% of transactions in the retail industry. Yet the majority of payments in casinos remain cash-based. No doubt accelerated by the pandemic, in many situations across the UK it is impossible to pay for goods or services with cash. As such, it is scarcely believable that restrictions would bind an industry to cash payments only.

Casinos need to be able to offer a cashless option to keep up with changing customer expectations. The controls on cashless opportunities in casinos are detrimental to business and restrict customer choice. There would be no additional risks to customers, as operators would continue to ensure that safeguards were in place to prevent people from spending beyond their means. That could be similar to the measures casino operators have in place elsewhere.

Other credit issues relate to high-end casinos in Mayfair, which bring in incredibly wealthy individuals from around the globe. Those casinos can accept cheques from players to facilitate the transfer of funds from abroad. However, the future of cheques is constantly in doubt, and some countries have already stopped their use in favour of electronic payments. Without the ability somehow to accept payments from those individuals, casinos would close overnight. Jobs and the significant contributions to the Treasury in gaming duty would be lost, along with the indirect investment and spending brought by those gamblers when they visit the UK. Electronic payments and permitting those casinos to give credit for gambling to high net worth individuals, with robust anti-money laundering controls in place, would make it possible to continue offering that service.

No part of the betting and gaming industry has been as severely affected by the pandemic as land-based casinos. These are small asks that would future-proof the sector while safely increasing what it could offer to consumers. Refusing to bring legislation into the 21st century, and ignoring the demand for gambling by over-regulating the industry, will only see casinos left behind, unable to compete and match the modern-day expectations of customers, which in turn will lead to a decline in jobs and tax revenue, and the sector’s contribution to economic growth. I hope the Minister will address those issues in the review, and I look forward to his response to those points.

The 2005 Act allows for one regional casino, or super-casino as it is sometimes known. A regional casino is defined as having a minimum total customer area of 5,000 square metres, and will be permitted to have up to 1,250 gaming machines. Paul Ward, a hotel operator in my constituency, has experience of working in a large casino abroad, and he has said:

“A super-casino isn’t just about gambling. I worked in a casino in Perth, Western Australia for a while. The employment opportunities were incredible… it created jobs for 1,500 people. The tourism it generated on top was amazing.”

The Government of the time agreed with that assessment and expected that a regional casino would be a major development, offering clear potential for regeneration and bringing in major investment and providing accommodation, as well as conference facilities, restaurants, bars, areas for live entertainment, leisure attractions and, of course, a premium gambling experience.

The primary criteria laid down by the Secretary of State at the time were to ensure that any chosen location would satisfy the need for the best possible social impact, and focus on areas needing regeneration. In a 2019 study comparing 32,000 neighbourhood areas across England, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government looked at income, employment, education, health and a few other factors. All the neighbourhoods were then ranked against each other. The sad result of the study was that eight of the top 10 most deprived neighbourhoods in England are based in Blackpool—a shocking statistic that clearly underlines the desperate need for substantial regeneration in my constituency.

There is widespread support across town for a regional casino. Ian White, a director of the approved hoteliers’ group, StayBlackpool, has said:

“A super-casino, bringing in dynamic investment would stimulate and support a truly year-round economy that the resort needs.”

Following the introduction of the 2005 Act, local authorities could bid for small, large or regional casino licences. Blackpool, of course, was a clear frontrunner to be awarded the regional casino. However, somewhat surprisingly, the panel recommended that it should be awarded to Manchester. Partly owing to that, a statutory instrument that was required to approve its location was defeated in the House of Lords in 2007. The issue has since been swept under the carpet, ignored and never returned to.

The Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport looked at casinos in its 2012 report on the Gambling Act, as I am sure the Minister recalls. On regional casinos, the report said that there was

“a general reluctance to discuss the development of regional casinos”.

Perhaps now, 14 years later, the time has come to re-examine the issue. Allow me to share the words of Amanda Thompson OBE, owner and managing director of the Pleasure Beach:

“The creation of a super-casino in Blackpool would herald a new powerful tourism brand for the resort and create a new holiday experience that would be a catalyst for inward investment, supporting growth, development and prosperity across all sectors.”

Although there is clearly no silver bullet to change Blackpool’s fortunes, a super-casino would create many jobs in the town, from contractors working on the site initially to staff at the premises once completed. There would also be a significant boost for local companies that could offer goods and services to the casino, its staff and its customers.

Will the Minister commit himself to reviewing the case for a regional casino during the gambling review and assess the significant positive economic impact that a regional casino could make to a town such as Blackpool, which would be the obvious location to host such a casino?

John Whittingdale Portrait The Minister for Media and Data (Mr John Whittingdale)
- Hansard - -

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton) on, and thank him for, giving us the opportunity to debate these issues. I also thank the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar), the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) for their contributions.

Casinos come in all shapes and sizes. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South said, I have been involved in the issue as Opposition spokesman during the passage of the 2005 Act and as Chair of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport for 10 years. As a result, I have visited quite a number of casinos, ranging from the Venetian in Macau, which I believe is the biggest in the world, and the Crown in Melbourne all the way down to the Genting in Westcliff, in Southend-on-Sea, and Aspers in Stratford, which is one of the few operating under one of the new licences.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to stress that, obviously, casinos are centres for gambling, but that they offer much more. Last week, I was at the Hippodrome in Leicester Square, where I was able to observe not only the gambling, but the excellent restaurant in that place. It is possible to enjoy hospitality there right through the night, unlike many other places in London. Although I did not attend, there is also regular entertainment by, I believe, Magic Mike.

My hon. Friend is right that casinos provide a significant tourist attraction, as well as a major economic contribution. They were, obviously, badly hit during the lockdown, in particular because, even when we were able to relax the measures, there was still a 10 o’clock curfew, and of course a lot of casinos do their business after 10 pm. It was with great relief, I know, that the casino industry was able to reopen on 17 May without a curfew in place. Casinos are still impacted by some restrictions. That affects the income of the local area, especially as casinos provide employment for a large number of people. My hon. Friend is right to remind us that the Chancellor also benefits considerably from the income from gambling duties.

The hon. Member for Strangford referred to the risk of problem gambling, which is at the top of our minds throughout. The gambling review that is taking place will address whether additional measures are needed to offer greater protection to those who may be susceptible to problem gambling. However, there has always been a pyramid of risk in the different places where one can gamble. Casinos have been seen to offer a safer environment than almost any other form of gambling. I have certainly observed that to be so, given the scrutiny of people who are gambling to ensure that they show no sign of having problems, as well as that regular intervention and the self-exclusion schemes. For that reason, it was felt right to allow more casinos to open.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South talked about the 2005 Act, and he is absolutely right that consideration in Committee was a tortuous process. We ended up with the creation of just eight small licences and eight large licences for new casinos. In actual fact, not all those licences have been taken up, or at least they have not been utilised. The majority of casinos still operate under the licensing arrangements of the original 1968 Act.

My hon. Friend made an excellent case that that has thrown up some bizarre anomalies, in particular the number of machines allowed under the licences pertaining to the new small and large casinos compared with those operating under the 1968 Act. As he said, a large casino under a new licence may have up to 150 machines, but, whatever the size, a casino is limited to 20 under the old Act. The House of Lords Gambling Industry Committee drew attention to that and said it needed to be addressed. That is certainly a matter that we are considering as part of the gambling review.

My hon. Friend flagged up one or two other anomalies, such as the fact that sports betting is allowed under the new licences but not under the old, despite the fact that someone who goes to a casino that operates under one of the 1968 Act licences can bet on sports—they just do it on their mobile phone, rather than through the casino itself. There are anomalies that are difficult to provide justification for and that we have said we will look at. There is also the development of technology. Furthermore, my hon. Friend flagged the fact that the requirement to have cash is becoming harder to fulfil as more and more people do not actually use cash any longer, which we need to take account of.

My hon. Friend rightly identified, and the right hon. Member for Warley alluded to, a very small but significant group of people whom I believe are known in the slang as whales, which means those people who tour casinos around the world and are quite capable of losing £1 million in an evening—the high rollers. This is an intensely competitive area, with maybe half a dozen or 10 venues in different countries around the world competing for their custom. The fact that we still require cheques when, as my hon. Friend said, they are becoming outmoded and more countries are not even using them is also something that we need to look at and on which the industry has made a case. The gambling review is considering all those issues.

John Spellar Portrait John Spellar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Can the Minister convey a greater sense of urgency? We are competing in a very competitive world—not only in this industry, but across a spectrum. Do we not need more urgency to improve and continue Britain’s attractiveness?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
- Hansard - -

I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s wish for these matters to be addressed as soon as possible, but that is likely to require legislation, possibly primary legislation, which will need to be considered against all the other demands on Parliament. However, we are hopeful that we will be able at least to come forward with the conclusions of the review in the autumn. I would like to be able to say a little more ahead of that time, although I absolutely take his point that these matters need to be addressed soon.

Finally, I will touch on the case made for Blackpool by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South. I was Opposition spokesman on these issues in 2005, and originally, we were going to say we should not have any super-casinos or regional casinos because of the risk that they might lead to a significant increase in problem gambling. We changed our mind and supported the Government in making available one licence. Everybody in the House of Commons believed that that one licence, if awarded, should go to Blackpool, and we were all somewhat mystified when the panel advised that it should go to Manchester.

That is history, but it is why a regional casino has not yet been built. We would need to consider whether there was support for one—my hon. Friend quoted a number of people from his constituency—but obviously that is a decision for the local authority as well. We would also need to establish whether an operator was prepared to make that investment. If those two things were the case, I would certainly be willing to talk to my hon. Friend and others from his constituency about that possibility. As he knows, the legislation is still on the statute book and could therefore be utilised if those two things were proven.

I am most grateful to you, Mr Mundell, and to my hon. Friend. I assure hon. Members that these matters are under very active consideration as part of the gambling review.

Question put and agreed to.

Oral Answers to Questions

John Whittingdale Excerpts
Thursday 1st July 2021

(3 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Navendu Mishra Portrait Navendu Mishra (Stockport) (Lab)
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What plans the Government have to privatise Channel 4. (902117)

John Whittingdale Portrait The Minister for Media and Data (Mr John Whittingdale)
- Hansard - -

As part of our ongoing strategic review of the UK’s system of public service broadcasting, the Government are consulting this summer on the future of Channel 4, including its ownership model and remit, and we intend to engage a broad range of stakeholders to inform any decisions taken.

Anum Qaisar-Javed Portrait Anum Qaisar-Javed [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

As part of its public service broadcaster responsibilities, Channel 4 does not have an in-house production function, relying on independent external production houses. Former Channel 4 commissioning editor Peter Grimsdale said that over 1,000 such production companies have been supported over the years. How do the Government mean to support those production houses if they sell off Channel 4, or do the thousands of jobs that would be destroyed in the sector not matter to this Tory Government?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
- Hansard - -

The hon. Lady is right that Channel 4 does not have an in-house production company, which means that it is entirely dependent on advertising revenue, which is one of the reasons why we think it right to look at the ownership model, but it does support independent production right across the United Kingdom. That is part of its remit and we intend to preserve the remit, although we will be examining whether that needs to be changed—indeed, possibly strengthened in some areas—as part of our consultation.

Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Portrait Mr Dhesi
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Channel 4 is a great British success story and an iconic institution. It has invested £12 billion in the independent production sector and regional TV, given voice to local communities across our country, and exported content around the world; and it has recorded a record £74 million financial surplus. Despite all those successes, for the sixth time, the Conservative Government are seeking to privatise it, even though they concluded just four years ago that that was a very bad idea. Could that possibly be because “Channel 4 News” is doing a solid job, in particular, of holding an incompetent and crony-connected Government to account?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
- Hansard - -

I share the hon. Gentleman’s view that Channel 4, which was, of course, the creation of a Conservative Government, has done an excellent job and it is our intention to sustain it into the future. That is why we believe that now is the right time to look at its future ownership, because it is coming under increasing pressure due to the changes taking place in the way in which television is consumed. While I may not always agree with “Channel 4 News”, I do believe it does a good job. I very strongly support plurality of news providers and would expect that Channel 4 will continue to feature a news service as part of its future offering, and that would remain part of its remit.

Navendu Mishra Portrait Navendu Mishra
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

John McVay, the chief executive of the Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television, has described Channel 4 as

“a catalyst for generations of entrepreneurs”,

which

“plays a critical role in the UK’s broadcasting ecology”,

having

“invested in hundreds of independent production companies over the nearly 40 years of its existence, enabling and improving access, skills, international activity and diversity.”

Would the Minister agree with me that selling off this precious public asset to an overseas competitor with no remit for commissioning innovative British content would be a body blow to the UK’s creative economy?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
- Hansard - -

I agree that selling off Channel 4 with no remit would be a mistake and that is certainly not our intention. John McVay, who is somebody I know well and have a great deal of respect for, is right that Channel 4 has done an excellent job in investing in independent production, but it is up against competition from big streaming services that can make 10 times the kind of investment that Channel 4 is capable of. That is why we think it is the right time to look at its ownership in order that, potentially, it can have access to much greater capital, which it will need in order to have a thriving future.

Julian Knight Portrait Julian Knight (Solihull) (Con) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My own personal view, and I stress that it is my personal view, is that the recovery of Channel 4 and the evolving media landscape warrant close consideration of privatisation and sale. Four years is a lifetime in the modern media marketplace. Does the Minister agree that this would be a good juncture at which also to consider whether Channel 4 could be bolstered by a merger with ITV or even by hiving off BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the BBC, which has often underperformed but has tremendous international potential to build scale for Channel 4?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
- Hansard - -

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I commend him and his Select Committee for the excellent report on public service broadcasting that they produced recently, which drew attention to the fact that the way in which we consume television is changing fast and that the switch from linear to digital is taking place even more quickly than some people anticipated. We have reached no conclusion as to the appropriate future ownership model for Channel 4—we maintain a completely open mind—but he raises a number of interesting possibilities and we look forward to seeing what submissions we receive as part of the consultation.

John Nicolson Portrait John Nicolson (Ochil and South Perthshire) (SNP) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The case for the privatisation of Channel 4 was, of course, debunked by the then Secretary of State last time the issue reared its head. I think her assessment was that it would be too much grief for too little money. Privatisation would see profit put first, a slash in the £500 million that goes annually to independent production companies, a centralisation of headquarters—the antithesis of levelling up—and likely cuts to Channel 4’s brilliant news and current affairs programming. Channel 4 recorded record profits last year and it does not cost the taxpayer a penny. Given that this much-loved institution is profitable and free, why do Ministers want to do down Britain and sell it off to avaricious American investors?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
- Hansard - -

The hon. Gentleman is wrong on several counts. It is the case that Channel 4 recorded a profit last year, and I commend the management for taking the action that made that possible, but the reason they did so was because they cut the amount of money that they spent on content by £140 million in anticipation of a big fall in advertising revenue, which indeed took place. It is to sustain Channel 4 going forward that we are looking at the possibility of alternative ownership models, and it would certainly be our intention that Channel 4 would do more outside London and across the United Kingdom, not less.

Christian Matheson Portrait Christian Matheson (City of Chester) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

“Countdown”, “Derry Girls”, “Gogglebox”, “The Word”, “It’s a Sin”, “Chewing Gum”—which gave us the astonishing Michaela Coel for the first time—“Educating Yorkshire”, “24 hours in A&E”, “24 hours in Police Custody”, “Location, Location, Location” with Phil and Kirstie, “Friday Night Dinner”—

--- Later in debate ---
Christian Matheson Portrait Christian Matheson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will simply finish with “Hollyoaks” and “The Secret Life of the Zoo”, Mr Speaker, which as you know have something in common with me—[Laughter.] They were both filmed in Chester. For four decades, Channel 4 has reflected and given voice to the diverse parts of the United Kingdom. Why do the Minister and the Government want to take that voice away and, as other hon. Members have said, sell it off to foreign tech companies that have no loyalty to the United Kingdom?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
- Hansard - -

I am extremely impressed by the hon. Gentleman’s viewing habits, although I notice he left out “Naked Attraction”, which certainly does appeal to diverse tastes. However, I absolutely agree that Channel 4 has been responsible for some great programmes over the years, and it is our intention that it should be able to continue to do that in the coming years. It is precisely because it is going to need access to investment capital in order to maintain that record that we think now is the right time to consider alternative models, but we have not reached any conclusion yet.

Barry Sheerman Portrait Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

What steps he is taking to ensure that documents of historical importance are retained in the UK. (902113)

--- Later in debate ---
Lisa Cameron Portrait Dr Lisa Cameron (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (SNP)
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What plans his Department has to (a) promote and (b) encourage people to watch the Paralympic Games in summer 2021. (902120)

John Whittingdale Portrait The Minister for Media and Data (Mr John Whittingdale)
- Hansard - -

The Paralympic games are one of the highlights of the sporting calendar. In recognition of their special national significance, we added the Paralympic games to the listed events regime in 2020, meaning that they will remain available on free-to-air television. I wish all our athletes every success in Tokyo and very much welcome Channel 4’s plans to broadcast live coverage of the Paralympics throughout the games.

Lisa Cameron Portrait Dr Cameron [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

New research by Scope has shown that 69% of people with disabilities believe that the Paralympics help to tackle negative attitudes. This comes as three in four people with disabilities believe that the public’s perceptions of disabled people have worsened or not shifted during the pandemic. Scope and ParalympicsGB have teamed up to call for the Paralympic games to be a catalyst for change. The all-party group on disability, which I chair, asks the Secretary of State and the Government to commit to work across broadcasting to champion inclusion in sports and employment for people with disabilities, alongside celebrating the fantastic achievements of our Paralympians.

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
- Hansard - -

The Government absolutely share the ambition of the hon. Lady and her all-party group to increase the participation by disabled people in sport. The Paralympics have been an extraordinary success in demonstrating the remarkable achievements of disabled athletes. I share her hope that the Paralympics will again receive record viewing figures and that the UK Paralympic athletes will continue to do as well as they have in recent times.

Chris Green Portrait Chris Green (Bolton West) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

What steps his Department is taking to open up the cultural and sporting sectors as covid-19 restrictions are eased. (902121)

--- Later in debate ---
Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

What progress he has made on the procurement process for the fourth national lottery licence. (902123)

John Whittingdale Portrait The Minister for Media and Data (Mr John Whittingdale)
- Hansard - -

The Gambling Commission is running the competition for the next national lottery licence, which will come into force in August 2023. The Gambling Commission has undertaken several rounds of market engagement with prospective applicants, and I was pleased to note that the commission received the expected number of applications. We expect to announce the preferred applicant at the end of the year.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Gambling Commission has turned down an invitation to appear before the gambling-related harm all-party group to discuss the upcoming national lottery licence procurement and the performance of the current provider. Many products developed by the current provider, such as online instant win games, have potential to cause serious harms, so will the Minister reassure the House that there will be proper scrutiny of the next provider and that appropriate harm prevention measures will be introduced?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
- Hansard - -

The incidence of problem gambling is lowest among players of the National Lottery, but nevertheless the need for protection of players remains of paramount importance. It was for that reason that the Government recently increased the minimum age for purchase of national lottery tickets from 16 to 18, and I can assure the hon. Lady that we will continue to monitor, as will the Gambling Commission, whether any further measures are necessary.

Jamie Wallis Portrait Dr Jamie Wallis (Bridgend) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. (902070)

Safety of Journalists

John Whittingdale Excerpts
Thursday 10th June 2021

(4 months, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber

Read Full debate Read Hansard Text
Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Order. Before I call the Minister for Media and Data, may I say that those contributing from the Back Benches should be looking at speaking for no longer than three minutes, as this is a relatively short but very important debate?

John Whittingdale Portrait The Minister for Media and Data (Mr John Whittingdale)
- Hansard - -

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the safety of journalists.

I very much welcome this opportunity to debate what is, as you have rightly said, Mr Deputy Speaker, an extremely important subject. It is the second such debate we have had in the space of two weeks, as we recently debated World Press Freedom Day. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) who has been an assiduous campaigner on this topic and who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on media freedom.

The safety of journalists is of critical importance, as journalists play a vital role in ensuring that democracy functions properly and in contributing towards a free society. The role that journalists play in exposing corruption, holding power to account and informing the electorate of the truth is absolutely central to a democratic, free society. Investigative journalism plays a critical role and we will all remember examples, such as the exposure of the thalidomide scandal, the corruption that riddled FIFA, the Panama papers and even MPs’ expenses.

Such journalism shone a powerful light into areas that needed to be exposed. That is particularly important at the moment. The need for the provision of trusted and reliable information is absolutely critical, and has been over the course of the last year, at a time when fake news has been so prevalent and it has been all the more important for people to be able to turn to trusted journalism for reliable reports of the truth.

For that reason we regarded it as vital to support the media during the pandemic. The media came under significant economic pressure and we were able to provide support to local newspapers and radio, and recognised the important role that journalists play by affording them key worker status.

While the role of journalists has never been more important, it is the sad truth that it is also increasingly dangerous. I pay tribute to the organisations that regularly highlight the harassment and intimidation of journalists that takes place in far too many countries.

Reporters sans frontières, which is responsible for the world press freedom index, has recorded that 50 journalists were killed in the course of their duties last year. The deadliest countries in the world are Mexico, Iraq, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan.

Justice for Journalists monitors the treatment of the press in the countries of the former Soviet Union. It lists 84 journalists currently held in detention or imprisoned. The most recent and most shocking example of a journalist being illegally detained is that of Raman Pratasevich, whose flight was forced to land in Belarus and who has since been held, with significant concern about his future wellbeing.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has identified 1,404 journalists who have died since they started keeping records in 1992. I pay tribute to the courage of those journalists around the world who are operating in extremely dangerous environments, particularly a number of British journalists who are on the frontline of conflict or reporting in authoritarian regimes. As we did two weeks ago, we remember Marie Colvin of The Sunday Times who was killed alongside her French colleague as a result of being deliberately targeted because of the job they were carrying out as journalists.

The UK has taken a lead in campaigning for the safety of journalists. We established the global conference on media freedom in July 2019 and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt) who led that initiative. We continue to co-chair the Media Freedom Coalition, which now comprises 47 member countries.

We have used our presidency of the G7, which is coming to its conclusion over the course of this weekend, to continue to highlight the importance of the protection of journalists. Indeed, we have included that in the communiqué that was issued by the Foreign Ministers, which has a number of paragraphs setting out exactly why it is so important that journalists should be afforded protection.

We established the global media defence fund, to which the Government are contributing £3 million over five years, and I am going to be speaking tomorrow at the Council of Europe in support of the resolutions being passed there highlighting the protection of journalists.

However, we are also conscious that if we are to be able to campaign on this issue, we need to set an example, too. The UK currently ranks 33rd out of 180 in the press freedom index, which represents a small improvement but it is nothing like enough. For that reason, the Government established, a year ago, the National Committee for the Safety of Journalists, which I co-chair along with the Minister for safeguarding, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins). That committee brings together representatives of the police, from the National Police Chiefs Council, the Police Service of Northern Ireland and Police Scotland; the prosecuting authorities—the Crown Prosecution Service and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service in Scotland; the Society of Editors; the National Union of Journalists, and some of those campaigning organisations such as Index on Censorship and Reporters Without Borders. As a result of the committee’s establishment, we published in March the national action plan for the safety of journalists, whose aim is to increase our understanding of the scale of the problem and enhance the criminal justice system response, so that in future there will be new training for police officers and a police officer in every force dedicated to investigating complaints relating to the safety of journalists. It will give greater resources and advice to journalists, agreed by their employers, and there will be a commitment from the online platform to do more. Finally, greater efforts will be made to improve the public recognition of the value of journalists. Last week, we published our call for evidence, to try to establish hard facts on the scale of the problem. It closes on 14 July and I hope very much that anyone who has experience will make a submission to it, but we have already received 200 responses which make it clear that online threats and harassment are indeed widespread and that this is a significant problem, which we need to do more to address. The committee will continue to meet to review the plan, but we are determined to ensure that the UK is as safe an environment as possible for journalists to carry out their job. We will also continue to campaign to raise the importance of this issue in every country around the world.

Alex Sobel Portrait Alex Sobel (Leeds North West) (Lab/Co-op)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Freedom of the press is at the centre of a free society, so I would like to start by talking about West Papua, whose people have been fighting for self-determination from Indonesia for 50 years. In the past month, hundreds of Indonesian soldiers have been deployed to the region and thousands of people have been displaced. In the Papuan struggle for liberation, journalists have been one of Indonesia’s key targets, with restrictions in place on foreign journalists and obstacles to receiving permission to report in the country. Once again, the prominent West Papuan journalist Victor Mambor was targeted in an attack after his reporting of the shooting of two Indonesian teachers in April. Similarly concerning is the fact that the capital of Papua province and surrounding areas have been subject to a month-long internet blackout, complicating the media’s efforts to report on the escalating conflict. The curtailment of journalistic freedom in West Papua is not completely new. In 2018, the Indonesian military deported BBC journalists Rebecca Henschke, and her co-reporters Dwiki and Affan; the crew were deported from West Papua after they hurt soldiers’ feelings when covering the ongoing health crisis in the Asmat region, which involved malnutrition and a lack of measles vaccinations causing a measles outbreak that killed dozens, perhaps hundreds—a lack of reporting means we will never know. According to the Alliance of Independent Journalists in Indonesia, there were 76 cases of journalists having to obtain prior permission to report in Papua, with 56 of these requests being refused.

The unacceptable targeting of media officers in Gaza by Israeli airstrikes earlier this month was another reminder of the importance of upholding press freedom. The freedom to inform is a crucial indicator of democracy and efforts to curtail it often come with human cost. Anna Politkovskaya was a reporter for the independent Novaya Gazeta in Russia and a critic of President Putin. Like many others, I was shocked and horrified when she was shot to death in the lobby of a Moscow apartment in 2006. In the trial relating to her death, the judge was clear that she was killed for her work

“exposing human rights violations, embezzlement and abuse of power”.

The sad reality is that I would no longer be surprised at such a death; it is estimated that 21 journalists have been killed since Putin came to power, and in the great majority of cases no one has been convicted and sentenced for the murders. That is not to say, of course, that the murder of journalists is a uniquely Russian issue. Many other countries have higher death rates, but nearly 15 years after Politkovskaya’s death the space for independent journalism in Russia has become smaller and smaller, while state-backed media have grown stronger and stronger. Many independent publishers have been forced to cease their publications, while Russian state-backed channels such as RT seem immune from accountability. The lack of accountability may or may not be a result of the clear message from the Russian authorities. Action taken against RT in the UK resulted in measures being taken against the BBC in Russia, while the Russian media are free to criticise the BBC as they see fit.

Russia is not the only state on a mission to reduce or remove BBC influence. Last month, I chaired a joint British Group Inter-Parliamentary Union and BBC event on the media in China, and heard how the BBC’s reporting of coronavirus and the persecution of the Uyghurs meant that the Chinese authorities cracked down, removing the BBC World News TV channel outright and banning the BBC World Service in Hong Kong.

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Alex Sobel Portrait Alex Sobel
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I think this is one of those subjects where, in principle, every Member of the House can agree, but it is in the detail—whether domestically or internationally —that we need to scrutinise Government action. Members right across the House have raised issues on which the Government must and should do more.

I thank the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), for his support on SLAPPs and for raising issues around journalistic freedom in the Philippines, one of the world’s most brutal regimes. He spoke about the need to protect journalists in the upcoming online safety Bill. I am sure that we will work closely with him on that.

The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) commented on a wide range of countries—some of which I failed to mention, so I thank him for that—including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Hungary, where Orbán has used Government media for racist attacks, but restricted the free press; indeed, in some cases, he has expelled the free press from the country. The hon. Member also spoke about Israel, which I mentioned, as did many Members, in the context of the attacks in Gaza. It was no accident that many countries that he mentioned have right-wing populist Governments. Something that those Governments have in common is the restriction of freedom of the press, so that they can carry out their agenda.

I associate myself with the speech of the hon. Member for Gravesham (Adam Holloway), who has had a distinguished journalistic career. I pay tribute to those British journalists who have been killed for reporting the truth to the world.

I thank my not quite constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who pointed out that destroying the AP building in Gaza was about restricting reporting on that conflict. They have a strong record and history in seeking the fair judicial treatment of journalists facing prosecution related to reporting, and I am sure they will continue to do so.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington also rightly praised the NUJ, which fiercely defends the rights of its members—our journalists—whether they are here in the UK or around the world. He also mentioned the work of openDemocracy, which does a brilliant job of safeguarding our freedoms here in the UK and holding the Government to account.

My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) made an exemplary speech, and was absolutely right to remind us that journalists in Northern Ireland continue to receive threats and restrictions on their reporting. The Government must do far more to protect journalists in Northern Ireland. The murder of Lyra McKee must result in justice, and the lessons need to be learned so that no more journalists are killed in Northern Ireland. It is vital that we, on our own shores, protect our own journalists.

The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) was right to highlight the fact that Amal Clooney quit as UK envoy on press freedom, as our own Government failed to stick to international law.

The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) was totally correct to highlight the horrendous kidnapping of the journalist Roman Protasevich, whose only crime was telling the truth about the brutal regime of his country, Belarus.

I hope that the Minister will give us assurances that he can and will do more to ensure press freedom both here—I did not hear very much in his opening speech to make me feel confident that he will do more here—and globally. He has made many assurances, not just today but last week and in the past, about protecting British journalists and international journalists right around the world, so that they are free to report.

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
- Hansard - -

I thank every Member who has contributed to what has been an excellent debate, even if it has been brief. Inevitably and depressingly, it has been something of a tour of the globe, which is a reflection of the number of countries where to be a journalist is still a dangerous occupation.

I cannot go through every single country that was mentioned, but I was interested to hear the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), refer to the work he has done with the Inter-Parliamentary Union. I thought I would mention that since you, Mr Deputy Speaker, were a distinguished chair of the British Group Inter-Parliamentary Union and I had the privilege of taking over from you. I know that the hon. Gentleman is also active in the BGIPU. Alongside the Government’s efforts, the IPU has done a lot to highlight the importance of freedom of the press. We will continue to work internationally through organisations such as the G7 and the Council of Europe. I should also mention the work of my colleague in the Foreign Office, Lord Ahmad, who is the Minister responsible in this policy area and who is extremely active.

I want to talk specifically about what is happening in this country and to highlight one or two contributions to the debate. My hon. Friends the Members for Gravesham (Adam Holloway) and for Aylesbury (Rob Butler) spoke with considerable experience, having both worked as broadcast reporters, and recounted some of their knowledge of this issue. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham, who reminded us of the sadly long list of British journalists—a number of whom were referred to—who have lost their lives in the course of their duties. The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) talked about Rory Peck, and it is worth paying tribute to the work done by the Rory Peck Trust, which was established in his name, to support freelance journalists who suffer in the ways mentioned.

There are of course still challenges to meet in this country. My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) highlighted the use of what are now called strategic lawsuits against public participation. He will know that the Government have made changes to the law on defamation that we believe make such lawsuits more difficult, but he also cited current examples, so it is certainly something that we need to monitor. It has been highlighted as a way in which people can try to suppress legitimate journalism. My hon. Friend also mentioned the online safety legislation that we will use to put in place extra protection for the work of journalists, in recognition of the importance of the freedom of the press.

The hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) made an excellent speech. She highlighted the particular risks of being a journalist in Northern Ireland. A representative of the Police Service of Northern Ireland serves on the National Committee for the Safety of Journalists, and I have had meetings with the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) to discuss these matters, but we are conscious that great abuse of journalists who operate in Northern Ireland still takes place. Of course, as the hon. Member for Leeds North West said, the most recent tragic death of a journalist in the course of carrying out her work was that of Lyra McKee from Belfast.

We have taken a really strong lead in this policy area with the establishment of the National Committee for the Safety of Journalists. We have published a national action plan, and we have the commitment of all those who serve on that committee to take more action, but of course we recognise that more needs to be done.

As I say, I am grateful to all those who have contributed to this afternoon’s debate and brought with them her own experience of having previously worked in journalism. I finish by paying tribute to all journalists, and in particular to those who have risked their lives and continue to do so on a daily basis in pursuit of exposing truth.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the safety of journalists.

Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

From all of us at the House of Commons I wish all the team working for the launch of GB News on Sunday the very best of British as they start an important role reporting the news that impacts on all our lives. That team contains many journalists whom we all know and greatly respect, so good luck to them all.

Information Commissioner (Remuneration)

John Whittingdale Excerpts
Monday 7th June 2021

(4 months, 3 weeks ago)

General Committees

Read Full debate Read Hansard Text
Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
John Whittingdale Portrait The Minister for Media and Data (Mr John Whittingdale)
- Hansard - -

I beg to move,

That the Committee has considered the motion:

That, from 1 November 2021—

(1) the Information Commissioner shall be paid a salary of £200,000 per annum and pension benefits in accordance with the standard award for the civil service pension scheme;

(2) all previous resolutions relating to the salary and pension of the Information Commissioner shall cease to have effect.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. The Information Commissioner’s Office is now one of the most important regulators in the United Kingdom. It is responsible for supervising almost every organisation in the country. We want to invest in its future success and to sustain its world-leading reputation.

The Information Commissioner must play an active role to keep the ICO at the forefront of regulatory best practice, continuing to develop governance, key decision making and other processes to reflect the ICO’s evolving role. There is an opportunity for the UK’s ICO to take a lead internationally, at a time when the establishment and development of, typically, governance structures for data, artificial intelligence and other new technologies are critical. The Information Commissioner therefore has a key role to play to drive the responsible use of data across the economy, to build trust and confidence, and to communicate the wider benefits of data sharing for our society in competition, innovation and growth.

This Government’s ambition is to make the UK the data destination across the world, and to use data to drive growth and innovation and to deliver our levelling-up agenda. Our national data strategy, published recently, sets out that ambition for the UK’s pro-growth and trusted data regime. We want to help innovators and entrepreneurs to use data responsibly and securely, without undue regulatory uncertainty or risk, in order to drive growth across the economy. Data is a strategic asset, and its responsible use should be seen as a huge opportunity to embrace. Getting that right is critical to jobs and growth as the UK economy becomes increasingly digitised and data-enabled.

We want the public to be active agents in the thriving digital economy and to have confidence and trust in how data, including personal data, is used. That will mean maintaining high standards of data protection without creating unnecessary barriers to data use. The opportunity to create a new and independent data regime is one of the key benefits of the UK’s departure from the European Union. We have no intention of dismantling our high standards of data protection, but we are no longer required necessarily to follow every dot and comma of the General Data Protection Regulation. We will be looking to see how we may better utilise data and enable it to flow more freely, while at the same time maintaining those high standards.

We need to attract world-class individuals who have the skills necessary to balance protecting individual data rights while simultaneously ensuring that data enables digital growth and innovation. We also need to attract people who can represent the UK on the international data stage. The Information Commissioner’s responsibilities have increased since we left the European Union; they now include overseeing existing EU adequacy decisions by 2024, as well as strategic engagement with European and international competent authorities. The UK now has a huge opportunity to use data responsibly as a strategic asset that can drive growth.

One of the other opportunities arising from our no longer being a member state is the ability to apply the framework of transfer tools inherited from GDPR in a more flexible way. As the ICO has now left the European Data Protection Board, we are able to be more agile than was possible when we were within the EU. The ICO has a strong international reputation and an influential position in key global regulatory forums. It engages effectively with foreign partners and EU adequacy. Therefore, the next Information Commissioner will not only focus on privacy, but ensure in part that people can use data to achieve economic and social goals. The next commissioner will need to have a deep understanding of how businesses use data in a cutting-edge way.

Data has many societal benefits and, as we emerge from the covid pandemic, the UK has an opportunity to be at the forefront of global data-driven growth. The next Information Commissioner will play a critical role in delivering that agenda. We need to attract an outstanding individual to take the ICO forward. They will have a key role to play. They need to build trust and confidence in responsible data use, while also being able to communicate the wider benefits of data sharing.

Since 2018, the salary of the Information Commissioner has fallen below the market averages for comparative roles. Salaries of heads of data protection regulators internationally range up to £270,000. In Italy, the Data Protection Authority chairman and chief executive officer both receive €240,000. We have received some outstanding applicants for this role, but they would potentially need to take a cut of up to 50% of their current salaries if they were to accept even the £200,000 salary that we are debating. Without the motion, the salary of the Information Commissioner would remain at £164,000, and we would risk losing the outstanding candidates we so badly need.

The introduction of GDPR and the rapidly developing data protection landscape have vastly increased the responsibilities of the Information Commissioner. They have increased still further since our exit from the EU. The global position of the ICO, the increased workload after leaving the European Union and the rapidly increasing demands on the sector and the statutory requirements of the organisation mean that it has grown by two thirds to more than 850 employees since 2018.

The ICO has had an increased enforcement role since the introduction of heavier fines and penalties. That is in addition to the commissioner’s increasing role in the regulation of the privacy and electronic communications regulations. In particular, the ICO continues to tackle nuisance telephone calls and texts, which I suspect every Member of this House knows can cause huge distress to the public. In the fourth quarter of 2020-21 alone, the ICO issued fines amounting to more than £1.1 million under PECR to companies that have been sending out nuisance calls and texts.

In summary, we believe that the proposed increase in the commissioner’s salary appropriately reflects the increased importance, challenge and responsibilities of the role. Finding the right candidate to fill that position will be a critical component of delivering our ambition to make the UK the most technologically innovative and growth-driven economy in the world.

Chi Onwurah Portrait Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab)
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It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hosie. I start by thanking Elizabeth Denham, who has served as Information Commissioner since 2016 and is now stepping down. The ICO is charged with the critical responsibility of upholding information rights in the public interest. Last year, it issued high-profile fines of £20 million and £18 million to British Airways and Marriott for data breaches that may have affected up to 339 million people across the world. Last week, I was pleased to see the ICO issue a fine of £10,000 to the Conservative party for breaching data laws during the 2019 general election campaign.

I thank the Minister for setting out what the motion will do. It brings the Information Commissioner’s remuneration up to £200,000 per year, an increase of up to £20,000 in this year of pandemic. That pay rise will see the commissioner’s total salary, including pension, rise above that of the CEOs of Ofqual and Ofgem, by £40,000 and £50,000 respectively. Furthermore, a 10% increase is significantly higher than the 1% pay rise that the Government have offered our frontline key workers in our NHS.

Changes to the commissioner’s remuneration come around only every few years and, as the Minister has set out, the salary has been frozen for more than three years now. The Opposition agree that a review is necessary to ensure that the salary is reflective of public service uprating protocols. However, we have some key questions that arise from a significant pay rise being gifted to any public servant, even in non-pandemic times.

First, we would like to know how much of the proposed increase is justifiably related to inflation, the cost of living and what the salary would have been uprated to had it been treated like any other public sector or public service job. We need to know what proportion of the pay rise is related to that and what is related directly to the additional responsibilities that the role is expected to see over the next few years, which the Minister summarised. Last time the commissioner’s pay was increased, it was because of the expansion of responsibilities introduced under GDPR.

The most recent job advert for the role of Information Commissioner shows that the successful candidate will play a key role in supporting the roll-out of the national data strategy. As the Minister emphasised, that strategy focuses on economic growth, rather than online safety or individual data rights. We still await details of the data strategy, but that highlights three new key responsibilities that the Information Commissioner will be taking on or assisting with.

We are not arguing against the need for those additional responsibilities. Indeed, the Opposition argue more that the Government have been slow to react to the changing digital landscape over the past decade, allowing our data to be used in nefarious ways, be that targeting vulnerable people with harmful messages or undermining democracy through misinformation and lies during election cycles. So little has been done and so much still needs to be done beyond the limited scope of the forthcoming Online Safety Bill—published only in draft form so far.

The Government must recognise that if we are to put people in control of their own data, the ICO must take greater action against those who act improperly with data. Existing law does not sufficiently cover the threats that people face, as the pandemic has emphasised, and new challenges are arising.

For example, at the start of this year I called for a review of data privacy protection to outlaw digital snooping after a YouGov survey found that 16% of companies installed remote tracking software in employees’ devices. The Government have since done nothing to address that and, in response my questions, they even appear to deny that it is an issue. The Information Commissioner, although appealed to, has yet to set out a regulatory framework on worker surveillance that will protect workers. Currently, the ICO offers limited guidance to employers.

We recognise the increase in responsibilities, but we are not sure that the Minister has fully set out the responsibilities as they need to be. In addition, he described the role as benefiting from Brexit, to ensure that our data regime evolves in a way that allows data to flow more easily, while not impacting on our highly prized and essential data adequacy requirements with the European Union. The next Information Commissioner will need to be something of a magician if they are to reflect both those requirements.

I must also ask specifically how the ICO as a whole will be resourced to reflect that increase in responsibilities, because increasing the pay of the commissioner will simply not address that. The Minister said that the ICO has 850 people, but my information from the Library is that it has 720 full-time members of staff. Ofcom has 937 and its CEO earns a salary of £315,000 per year. Ofgem has 920 staff and its CEO is paid £225,000 per year. Dividing total salary with pension by the number of staff, by my calculation—I will be happy to see the Minister’s—Ofcom’s CEO has pay per employee of £336, and for Ofgem the figure is £244. The Information Commissioner will have £365, which is significantly higher. Does the Minister feel that is proportionate? Will he assure us that the ICO will be resourced to protect us online? Will that involve taking on more staff, for example? Will he commit to bringing in robust and extensive regulations to protect us from evolving threats, such as artificial intelligence or surveillance?

The Minister talked about how the ICO handled nuisance call. I have to say that that seems a significant overestimate. When I raised the issue of online scams and fraud with the commissioner, she told me that the ICO

“are working closely with our partners, like Trading Standards and law enforcement, to continue to protect people, raise awareness and stop criminals during this challenging period.”

By no means is it taking on sole responsibility for online scams and fraud, and very few people believe that enough is being done.

Which?, the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, UK Finance and the Carnegie Trust have all called on the Government to do more to prevent online scams and the data leaks that contribute to them. When my parliamentary account was targeted with sexually explicit spam emails, I contacted the ICO directly, but again there seemed to be confusion over where responsibility lay. There is also confusion about how to respond to scams, nuisance emails and calls. Will the Minister say in one sentence what a citizen who is so targeted should do? He is nodding at me, so I hope that means we will get the clarity that I have been looking for.

Over the past decade—I should declare an interest, as I previously worked for Ofcom—Ofcom has taken on significant new responsibilities: the BBC, the Post Office, national security for the entire telecoms network, and now the confused and contradictory online safety duties. I am concerned that new responsibilities plus the absence of a joined-up approach by Government to data breaches, data rights and scams might lead to the Information Commissioner being similarly overburdened. Apart from the salary increase, what plans does the Minister have to address that challenge? Furthermore, will he tell me whether he plans to raise the already extremely high salary of £315,000 per year for Ofcom’s CEO in line with its continued expansion of duties?

The Minister mentioned the job advert, and we agree that we want to attract the brightest and the best. In 2018, when the commissioner’s renumeration was last re-evaluated, the Government were clear that the wage rise was in part designed to increase competitiveness in the market and to attract world-class candidates. He said that it had fallen behind comparable roles. However, as he is well aware, that depends what roles we compare it with. For example, Canada’s information commissioner is paid £182,000 per year, and Ireland’s is paid £177,000 per year, as research by the House of Commons Library has indicated to me. I would expect that the Minister has access to comparable research, so can he give a bit more detail on what assessment has been done of the current jobs market for this role?

The advert closed on 28 March, and the Minister said that they had an excellent candidate. Can he tell us when we can expect an announcement of a successful candidate? I will also raise the point that in 2018 the Government cited an increase in freedom of information requests as another justification for the increase in salary. We recognised that as a valid concern back in 2018. However, the Government’s figures show that freedom of information requests across all monitored bodies have since fallen by 10%. Has the Minister taken that into account when considering the pay rise?

The ICO and its commissioner work to uphold information rights. We have seen the significant impact that the pandemic has had on our working lives and social lives over the past 15 months, and the role that our personal data plays in everything from global trade to local service provision is only going to increase. Personal data drives the business models of the digital economy and, increasingly, the artificial intelligence algorithms that take important decisions about how we live, study and work. We need to put people back in control of their data, and I hope the Minister would agree with that.

Finally, I will just note that we must be careful and take stock when discussing very high rates of pay in the public sector. Many of our constituents are angry at the way the Government have treated the NHS and public sector key workers throughout the pandemic, compounded by a decade of cuts to public services and real-terms salary cuts to frontline staff. These are difficult times for families across the country, many of whom do not know whether they are going to have a job to return to once pandemic support is withdrawn.

However, we appreciate that the commissioner’s renumeration has been increased only once since 2008 and, as the Minister has stated, that it is vitally important that we attract the best candidate to the role. As such, I will not be asking my hon. Friends to vote against this increase, but I will be very interested to hear the Minister’s answers to the questions I have asked, and I hope that the Government will meet the calls for a pay rise for frontline public sector key workers with the same enthusiasm they have demonstrated today.

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central for the helpful way in which she has raised some perfectly valid questions, which I will do my best to address. I will begin by joining her in thanking the outgoing Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, who I think I appointed in my previous capacity a few years ago.

It is worth reminding the Committee, which I did not do in my opening address, that Elizabeth Denham’s salary is £180,000, which was a single supplement at the time of her appointment. Without today’s motion, the salary of the incoming commissioner would fall back from £180,000 to £164,000. The hon. Lady’s questions about how it compares with the rate of inflation and with the pay of public sector workers are valid, but we need to set this in context. The proposed increase would take the current salary from £180,000 to £200,000, but without the motion it would come back down again.

Of course, we all understand that these are difficult times for many people. A lot of our constituents will look at these huge salaries and say, “That’s more than I could ever dream of getting; surely £164,000 is an awful lot of money.” But the truth is that we are operating in an incredibly globally competitive area, where the skills we need are in short supply, and where people who possess those skills can command huge salaries. We have had some very good applicants, and I suspect that whichever of them ends up getting the job will be getting a pay cut from what they are currently earning.

The hon. Lady made a number of comparisons. It is difficult to equate different regulators or international regimes, but the Italian Data Protection Authority pays its head €240,000, while the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner commands a salary of £272,000, so the amount we are paying is by no means at the top of the scale. The hon. Lady mentioned Ofcom, which pays about £330,000. Executives on the Financial Conduct Authority get between £380,000 and £550,000, and Network Rail’s chair gets £310,000. Although I fully recognise that we are asking the taxpayer to meet a considerable salary, it is by no means the highest, if we look at other regulators. It reflects the critical importance of data for our economic growth.

The hon. Lady referred to the national data strategy. We published the results of a consultation on the national data strategy at the same time the ICO published its data sharing code. We will be going on to consider what additional changes might be made to try to remove some of the barriers that I have spoken about. The ICO will play a critical part in this area.

There are new responsibilities that, as I said, did not exist before Britain ceased to be a member of the European Union. The hon. Lady rightly referred to the importance of data adequacy. I hope we will very shortly reach the final agreement that the UK will maintain data adequacy with the European Union. One of the new opportunities is to look at potentially signing new data adequacy agreements with third countries. That is something that, at the moment, the EU does, but very slowly. As a third country, we now have that ability. In the consideration of whether we can reach an agreement, the ICO will play an absolutely critical role.

The hon. Lady referred to nuisance calls. One needs to differentiate to some extent between what are termed nuisance calls—people ringing somebody up and trying to persuade them to make claims or whatever that they do not need—and scams that try to persuade people to put something on their computer that will allow some criminal to access all their personal financial information. The two are obviously closely related, but one is very firmly within the remit of the ICO and the other is, to some extent, within the remit of law enforcement and the Home Office. Obviously, they all need to work together very closely, and that is happening. At the moment, scams and fraud are probably causing more distress and anxiety, whereas a few years ago it was mortgage protection policy claims and other types of nuisance calls that we all experience. As I say, they are working together very closely on that. The Home Office, which leads on that, intends to say more about that very shortly.

Chi Onwurah Portrait Chi Onwurah
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I thank the Minister for his comments. I just want it to be clear that although he is right to say that it is possible, and indeed important, to distinguish between nuisance calls and scams, they both share the characteristic that somebody has got hold of a person’s data, phone number and something about them, so a nuisance call can lead to a scam, depending on how much personal data they have. All the mobile networks, for example, have one text number that people can text if they get a nuisance call. There is also Action Fraud. The ICO has a relevant page on one of its websites. I want to emphasise to the Minister the point that this is very complex and individual citizens do not know what to do in response to nuisance calls—there is not a sufficiently shared understanding of that—so to say that the ICO is addressing either of these is actually an overstatement.

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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I completely agree that more needs to be done, and I think action is being taken now. The hon. Lady is right that there is a lot of confusion about where to go to report receipt of a nuisance or scam call—I have done that myself. Although Ofcom monitors, it does not deal with individuals. The ICO has a reporting mechanism, but an individual does not necessarily know whether anything ever happens if they do report. Action Fraud is where they should go if it is a claim of fraud.

All I will say to the hon. Lady is that I am very aware that there is a lack of public confidence and that it needs to be addressed. As I have said, discussions are going on between the ICO, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Home Office and, as the hon. Lady rightly identifies, the telecoms companies. I think that there is almost certainly more that can be done there, and I believe that we will be saying more about that very shortly. This is another reason why the ICO plays a critically important role, both in supporting economic growth and technical innovation in our economy and in providing protection for citizens against the abuse of their data or, as in this case, what we recognise are highly distressing calls—either nuisance calls or, worse, scams.

I will end by repeating that the ICO is a very important office, and it is going to get more important over time. That means we need to have an outstanding person at the head of it. The hon. Lady asked when we will announce the person’s identity. I can say that we are very far advanced. I hope that we will be in a position to make that announcement very shortly. Of course, once we do, it will need to be confirmed by the relevant Select Committee. That process will already be in train. I am sure that the new Information Commissioner will also be delighted to discuss these things with the hon. Lady once he or she is in place.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That the Committee has considered the motion:

That, from 1 November 2021—

(1) the Information Commissioner shall be paid a salary of £200,000 per annum and pension benefits in accordance with the standard award for the civil service pension scheme;

(2) all previous resolutions relating to the salary and pension of the Information Commissioner shall cease to have effect.

World Press Freedom Day

John Whittingdale Excerpts
Christian Matheson Portrait Christian Matheson (City of Chester) (Lab)
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It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani, and to follow what has been an excellent debate. In an unusual opening gambit for a shadow Minister, may I first pay tribute to the Minister who, in Opposition as well as in Government, has made this issue a priority? I know it is something that he really believes in.

I also pay tribute to my good friend, the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), who gave a fantastic opening exposition. He spoke about news deserts, and other hon. Members also spoke about the problems of local news and media. He also mentioned the importance of not forgetting online news and disinformation, on which I know he has done so much work in the past. It was a fantastic introduction.

Let me say first of all that we have to get our own house in order, starting here in this place, in Westminster. Too often, there is a tendency to attack journalism. It is still a matter of shame for me that four or five years ago, Laura Kuenssberg felt that she had to have a bodyguard to attend the Labour party conference. Once again, I send my apologies to her for that. More recently, a Conservative Minister caused the Twitter pile-on of a journalist who was asking perfectly innocent questions, and we have heard some unhelpful comments from the Prime Minister attacking all journalists. We have got SNP Members who attack the BBC because they do not like the way it covered the independence referendum. Plenty of Conservative MPs are always undermining the BBC and calling it for it to be defunded. We have Democratic Unionist party MPs who have a beef with Stephen Nolan and attack the BBC and its integrity. Those attacks need to stop. By all means complain about individual broadcasts, but stop undermining independent journalism.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) mentioned, the UK is ranked 33rd out of 180 countries in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index. Restrictions on freedom of information and active threats to the safety of journalists in Northern Ireland continue to mar the UK’s press freedom record. We heard about the murder of Lyra McKee and her search for the truth. She was shot in 2019 during the riots that took place in Derry. It is truly shocking that on our shores journalists still face such a hostile environment.

The situation in Northern Ireland, incidentally, is becoming increasingly hostile. I heard recently the horrific story of Patricia Devlin, who has been subject to continuous and serious threats and abuse in recent years. In 2019, she reported receiving a Facebook message—I hesitate to say this, but I will—that suggested threats of rape against her baby. That is to a journalist in the UK. In a case in Barrow-in-Furness, Amy Fenton was run out of town by far-right gangs. We still have something to do in the UK. We need to make that a priority.

The focus of the debate is international. Numerous hon. Members referred to the disgraceful case of Roman Protasevich, which, frankly, was an act of piracy by the Belarusian Government. To those who would suggest that Mr Protasevich is not a journalist but merely a citizen blogger, when all the press in Belarus is so tightly controlled and not independent, citizen bloggers become the only source of independent information and, as has been mentioned, an essential independent voice.

In the debate, we heard that the number of journalists being killed is at an all-time high, with 387 being detained and 50 journalists killed around the world in 2020. The hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe mentioned the gunning down of the three female media workers in Afghanistan. In fact, the past decade has been the deadliest one for the profession, with a total of 1,059 journalists killed in the past 10 years simply for doing their job. That has to stop. Every year, every statistic, has a human side—the death of a mother or father, a brother or sister, a community left without information, denied that human right to be properly informed.

Let us not forget that the threat does not come only from authoritarian Governments. My right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) talked about Mexico, a country that he knows well. Journalists have been murdered for investigating powerful organised crime groups and drug cartels. Reference was made to the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta, with suggestions that elements of organised crime were working in concert with Governments. I ask the Minister for us to do more than simply condemn the detention and killing of journalists all around the world. More must be done to support those who are being silenced.

The BBC World Service does a fantastic job of projecting and promoting not just British values, but truthful and honest journalism. That is known throughout the world. Given those who say that we need to cut the BBC licence fee, I remind hon. Members in the Chamber and elsewhere that 70% of World Service funding comes from the licence fee—be careful what you wish for.

The BBC World Service is under threat. In China, the BBC World News TV channel has been banned by the Chinese authorities. In Hong Kong, the BBC World Service has been removed from the airwaves, after criticism of the BBC for its reporting on coronavirus and the persecution of the Uyghurs. World News distribution in mainland China was limited to international hotels; nevertheless, its loss is symbolically significant. John Sudworth, the BBC’s China correspondent whose reporting exposed truths about the Xinjiang detention camps, including sexual violence against Uyghur women, has now had to move to Taiwan, following pressure and threats from the Chinese authorities.

In Myanmar, BBC Burmese correspondent Aung Thura was taken away and detained along with a colleague towards the end of March, while reporting outside the court in the capital. The licences of media companies have been revoked and nightly internet shutdowns have been used to restrict news coverage and access to information.

Russia is also becoming an increasingly hostile environment for journalists. In recent years, many independent news organisations have closed down or curtailed their operations. Legislation governing the media is extensive and strict. The Russian authorities have made it clear that any action taken against the Russian state-backed TV channel RT in the UK will result in similar measures being taken against the BBC in Russia. Of course, there is the problem of the continuing harassment of BBC Persian staff, and their families, by Iran. It is deeply troubling and continues to escalate. The Iranian authorities have targeted Persian journalists, the BBC and their families since the service launched satellite television in 2009. Intimidation of the family members of BBC Persian staff in Iran is a regular occurrence. This takes various forms, including arrests, detention, questioning, threats that jobs or pensions will be lost, confiscation of passports and asset freezes. I ask the Minister to reflect on the situation of BBC Persian journalists, and ensure that they and their families in this country and abroad are safe.

I refer briefly to the question on the bombing of the news premises in Gaza, mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) and for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson), my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North and many others. What happened is an absolute outrage. The building was deliberately targeted and that cannot be allowed without massive criticism of the Israeli air force.

Finally, I reflect on an increasingly problematic matter, mentioned by the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), the question of SLAPPs—an acronym that I think came first and the words to fill it after—strategic lawsuits against public participation. It is a real problem. Legal threats against journalists are far from a new phenomenon. Yet increasingly, media outlets and freelance journalists—even those with no links to the UK—report receiving letters from London law firms acting on behalf of the people they are investigating. The high costs and long time periods involved in fighting legal threats in the UK pile significant pressure on individual journalists or media outlets to withdraw or refrain from publishing their investigations, even if they believe them to be accurate and in the public interest. Taken usually by powerful or wealthy individuals and entities, the intention is not to address a genuine grievance, but to stifle investigations into matters of public interest through intimidation, and by consuming the target’s financial and psychological resources.

These types of vexatious legal threats can also come hand in hand with orchestrated smear campaigns, offline surveillance and other forms of harassment against journalists. Some of the recent examples include lawsuits filed by Russian billionaires against Catherine Belton; by the allies of the Malaysian Prime Minister against Clare Rewcastle Brown; and a lawsuit filed against OCCRP and its co-founder Paul Radu, by an Azerbaijani politician. Perhaps even more shocking is the involvement of UK legal companies who actively advertise such services to their clients. The UK is the leading international source of these threats, almost equivalent to those stemming from EU countries and the US combined.

To protect media freedom at home and abroad, the UK must take action to address two interlinked trends—first, the role that London continues to hold as an international libel capital, despite reforms to English and Welsh law in 2013, and the impact of such legal action, or even the threat of it, in the UK on journalists around the world; and secondly, the impact that the UK’s facilitation through its financial and legal systems of illicit finance links to political elites in countries with poor democratic records has on media freedom there. It is not surprising that countries with higher rates of corruption tend to have the fewest protections for journalists and the media. The so-called SLAPPs damage the UK’s reputation as a haven for free speech, and I urge the Minister to look into that issue.

It is clear that press and media freedoms are under threat around the world. For a country that is part of the global Media Freedom Coalition, there is a long way to go to promote and protect press freedom. I know that the National Union of Journalists advises that there should be a new convention, which is stronger than the demand solely for a special representative. A new convention would systemise and detail existing obligations, enhance the visibility of the journalists and the protection required for journalism, and codify multiple texts into one comprehensive document. We need to value journalists and their contribution, protect their livelihoods and stand up for universal rights and freedoms, democracy and the rule of law everywhere, and against violations wherever they take place. That must support freedom of expression, and specifically media freedoms.

John Whittingdale Portrait The Minister for Media and Data (Mr John Whittingdale)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) on securing the debate and on his work to promote media freedom. I am particularly grateful to him for taking over as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on media freedom, which I chaired until February 2020.

A lot of Members have focused on dreadful abuses of media freedom in different countries around the world, and so to some extent Members might have expected a response from a Foreign Office Minister. The Minister who has specific responsibility for the subject is my noble Friend Lord Ahmad, the Minister for South Asia and the Commonwealth, who is doing a great job championing media freedom internationally. He is obviously prevented from taking part in this debate in our House, but I work with him closely.

It is encouraging that there has been widespread recognition across this Chamber that media freedom is a crucial component of an open, democratic society. We may not always like or agree with what is written about us in the press, but the role of a free media in holding Government to account, in exposing corruption or malpractice and in providing trusted, reliable information and reporting has never been more important. However, media freedom is under increasing threat across the world. A number of Members pointed out that 50 journalists were killed last year while doing their job. According to Reporters Without Borders, which does a terrific job of monitoring that and campaigning, already this year 13 more journalists or media assistants have been killed, and there are currently 439 in prison. The summary analysis of its World Press Freedom Index 2021, published in April, said that journalism is completely or partly blocked in 73% of the 180 countries ranked in the index; that the coronavirus pandemic has been used by Governments as cover for blocking journalists’ access to information; and that journalists find it increasingly hard to investigate and report sensitive stories, especially in Asia, the middle east and Europe.

I join a number of those who have contributed in paying tribute to the courage of journalists working in some of the most difficult, dangerous and challenging parts of the world. The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) reminded us of our own Marie Colvin, who was killed in Syria along with her photographer, French journalist Rémi Ochlik, in 2012. I am sure he heard, as I have, Paul Conroy, who was also badly injured at that time, talk about how the shelling that killed Marie Colvin and her colleague was deliberately aimed at them because they were journalists.

It is because media freedom is so important that the Government have championed the cause of media freedom around the world. As has been mentioned, in July 2019 the UK hosted the Global Conference for Media Freedom, which led to the establishment of the Media Freedom Coalition of like-minded countries that pledged to collaborate to improve the media freedom environment across the world. The UK continues to co-chair the coalition. It is still a relatively young body, but it is growing and currently has 47 members. This year the coalition has already issued statements about China, Belarus and Myanmar, as well as a statement marking World Press Freedom Day. We are working on giving the coalition more impact on the ground by encouraging local collaboration in countries with those who are better able to engage with Governments and lobby them directly.

A number of countries have been mentioned, but I think it is important to speak about the most recent appalling example of the danger faced by journalists, which is of course the hijacking of an aeroplane and then the detention of Roman Protasevich in Belarus. In 2018, I led an Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation to Belarus. There was no question: the country was not democratic or free, and journalism was under terrific pressure. We met independent journalists operating there. Reporters Without Borders has assessed Belarus as the most dangerous country in Europe for media actors. I am pleased that the Government are supporting independent media organisations in that country, and we have already committed £2.7 million of support for independent media in Belarus. Alongside the Government, the IPU has been very active in championing media freedom and organising conferences, and I can remember listening to the relatives of journalists operating for the BBC’s Persian Service. The Persian Service is not able to operate in Iran. Its journalists broadcast from London on the BBC, but their relatives in Iran are being subjected to harassment and intimidation. We will continue to high- light that and to put pressure on the Iranian Government to respect their freedom.

As I said, the World Press Freedom Index, which several Members have referred to and which was published in April, showed that the UK had risen by two places, to No. 33. It is obviously good news that we have gone up in the rankings, but to some extent that is because other countries have gone down. It demonstrates that we undoubtedly still have a lot of work to do. The death of Lyra McKee, a journalist in Belfast, is happily a very rare example of where a journalist in this country has lost their life in the course of their work, but there is no question that journalists in the UK still suffer dreadful harassment and abuse.

The hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) mentioned Amy Fenton. I have met and talked to her about the abuse that occurred, which led her to have to seek police protection. It was for that reason that we established the National Committee for the Safety of Journalists, which brings together senior figures from law enforcement, the police, the prosecuting authorities, the campaigning organisations, the Government, and both the Society of Editors and the National Union of Journalists. The aim was to demonstrate a shared commitment to ensure that journalists are free to carry out their vital role without threats of violence.

We have now published the first ever national action plan for the safety of journalists, which sets out the actions that all the partners will take to protect journalists. Every police force will have a dedicated officer to whom journalists can make a complaint, or whom they can contact in the event of abuse against them. The police will be trained, particularly about the importance of safeguarding journalists. Employers will provide extra training, and the platforms where a lot of the abuse occurs have said that they will establish designated journalism safety officers.

There is still more to be done, and one of the first things that we want to do is to get more evidence about the scale of the problem. We will shortly be publishing the call for evidence, and I hope that any journalist operating in the UK who has suffered in such a way will respond to it. I am delighted that our work on that has already been praised at the Stockholm Conference on Media Freedom in the OSCE region, and has perhaps contributed to the promotion in the ranking of the UK on the World Press Freedom Index.

In response to my right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), I can confirm that the UK is using our presidency of the G7 to highlight the importance of media freedom. We will be asking G7 members to reconfirm their commitment to defend media freedom and to provide practical, technical and programmatic support to journalists and media, including through the global media defence fund. The fund was set up with the help of the UK and UNESCO, which currently manages it, and we continue to support it. In 2019, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office pledged £3 million to the fund over the next five years, and we are delivering on that commitment. To date, the fund has supported a variety of activities, such as pursuing strategic litigation with the goal of challenging laws and regulations that infringe on media freedom in Zanzibar, and investigative journalism that is focused on cases of threatened, prosecuted, imprisoned, attacked or assassinated journalists in the Philippines.

I thank the High Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom for its contribution to international efforts to promote media freedom. We are now working through all the recommendations of its report, with a view to responding.

Just before I finish, I will touch on an issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe and by the right hon. Member for Islington North—the threat to sustainable journalism, especially traditional media, as a result of the growth of social media and the power of the online platforms. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight that issue; it is a matter of considerable concern. As he well knows, we have received a number of reports highlighting the need for action. He will also be aware that we recently established the Digital Markets Unit in the Competition and Markets Authority, which will bring in mandatory codes of conduct to ensure that the relationship between publishers—in other words, media—and the platforms is not abused by the over-dominance and anti-competitive practice of the platforms.

There is still a lot of work to do, but I am determined that this country should address the concerns that have been rightly expressed today about what happens in the UK, and I am also determined that we should continue to champion media freedom wherever it is under threat across the world. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe for giving us the opportunity to show that this House is united in that ambition.

Damian Collins Portrait Damian Collins
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Thank you for calling me again, Ms Ghani.

I thank all Members for their participation in what has been a really excellent debate. We have heard many harrowing stories of attacks on individual journalists, many of whom have lost their lives, for seeking to speak truth to power, to make citizens aware of abuses of power, and to campaign for change.

In my 11 years as a Member of Parliament, I can think of so many issues that I have been involved with, personally or as a member or Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, and coverage of so many of them was initiated by the work of investigative journalists, bringing to the attention of Parliament and politicians serious issues that needed to be addressed. So journalism is a vital part of a vibrant democracy, and we should take any attack against the media and journalism anywhere in the world incredibly seriously.

A number of Members, and indeed the Minister, too, raised the serious challenges that exist in the digital world. As the Minister said, it is right that we create the infrastructure to safeguard journalism in the future, through the operation of the draft Online Safety Bill and in particular through the Digital Markets Unit, to ensure that there is not an abuse of market power that will undermine media and could effectively turn journalism into a behind-closed-doors product that a few people pay for but many citizens are simply not exposed to at all. That would be a terrible outcome.

The final point that I will make, which I and others—particularly the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson)—made during the debate, is the important one about abuse of the legal system in the UK to shut down legitimate journalism and legitimate inquiry with lengthy and expensive lawsuits. We have seen examples of that and it is another important area where we need to safeguard journalism in the UK, too.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered World Press Freedom Day 2021.

BBC: Dyson Report

John Whittingdale Excerpts
Julian Knight Portrait Julian Knight (Solihull) (Con) (Urgent Question)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

To ask the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport if he will make a statement on the findings of Lord Dyson’s report into the BBC.

John Whittingdale Portrait The Minister for Media and Data (Mr John Whittingdale)
- Hansard - -

Lord Dyson’s report makes shocking reading. It details not just an appalling failure to uphold basic journalistic standards but an unwillingness to investigate complaints and to discover the truth. That these failures occurred at our national broadcaster is an even greater source of shame. The new leadership at the BBC deserve credit for setting up an independent inquiry and for accepting its findings in full. However, the reputation of the BBC—its most precious asset—has been badly tarnished, and it is right that the BBC board and wider leadership now consider urgently how confidence and trust in the corporation can be restored.

It is not for the Government to interfere in editorial decisions, but it is the job of Government to ensure that there is a strong and robust system of governance at the BBC with effective external oversight. It was to deliver that that we made fundamental changes when the BBC’s charter was renewed in 2015-16. Since then, the BBC Trust has been replaced by a more powerful board with an external regulator, Ofcom, responsible for overseeing the BBC’s content and being the ultimate adjudicator of complaints. We also made provision at that time for a mid-term review by the Government to ensure that the new governance arrangements were working effectively. That review is due next year but work on it will start now. In particular, we will wish to be satisfied that the failures that have been identified could not have occurred if the new governance arrangements had been in place. The BBC board has also announced today its own review, led by the senior independent director and two non-executive members, of the BBC’s editorial guidelines and standards committee. That review will examine editorial oversight, the robustness and independence of whistleblowing processes, and the wider culture within the BBC. It will take independent expert advice and will report by September.

In an era of fake news and disinformation, the need for public service broadcasting and trusted journalism has never been stronger. The BBC has been, and should be, a beacon setting standards to which others can aspire, but it has fallen short so badly and has damaged its reputation both here and across the world. The BBC now needs urgently to demonstrate that these failings have been addressed and that this can never happen again.

Julian Knight Portrait Julian Knight [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Lord Dyson’s report was utterly damning. Put simply, Mr Bashir has obtained fame and fortune by instituting document forgery and callously scaring a mentally vulnerable woman—not a mistake, as he claims in The Sunday Times, but something with more than a whiff of criminality about it. The BBC then covered this up, blackballing whistleblowers and ensuring that its own reporters did not report on Bashir. But it did not stop there. The BBC rehired Bashir, who it knew was a liar, promoted him, and, extraordinarily for the BBC, allowed him to moonlight for its main commercial rival. Mr Munro, head of news gathering, greeted Bashir’s return by citing his excellent

“track record in enterprising journalism”.

My sources suggest that Mr Bashir was not interviewed, but simply appointed—hardly a highly competitive process.

Does the Minister agree that Dyson leaves still more unanswered questions? Who precisely was involved in the 25-year cover-up and instituted the action against whistleblowers? Was Bashir rehired, in essence, so that he would keep his mouth shut? Did Lord Hall make the decision to rehire Bashir, or was that in fact Mr Munro?

Finally, the BBC has announced a review into some of those matters, and into how robust its current practices are. Does the Minister agree that a good starting point would be to ensure that the investigating panel is diverse? As yet, no women are included, which is ironic considering that the victim of Mr Bashir was a woman. Should whistleblowers be compensated, and the matter of BBC culture be considered, including the “us and them” between management and reporters, and the kowtowing to so-called “talent”, at the expense of the BBC’s own editorial guidelines? Does the Minister share my alarm that Mr Davie has recently removed the sole voice for editorial policy on the BBC’s executive committee? What does he see as the long-term implications for the BBC charter.

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
- Hansard - -

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his urgent question. He maintains the fine tradition of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee asking probing and incisive questions. The questions he raises are valid. The process by which Martin Bashir was recruited to return to the BBC, and his subsequent resignation a couple of weeks ago, are matters that the director-general is investigating urgently, and I expect him to provide a fuller account of exactly what happened shortly. I know my hon. Friend will want to examine the BBC on that question, and indeed on the other valid questions that he raised about the composition of the panel, its diversity, and the protection in place for whistleblowing. Those important questions need to be addressed, and I am sure that my hon. Friend and the Committee will do that.

Jo Stevens Portrait Jo Stevens (Cardiff Central) (Lab) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) for securing this urgent question, and the Minister for his response. I also echo the many expressions of deep concern about the actions of Martin Bashir 25 years ago, and the deception he used to secure the interview with Diana, Princess of Wales. The understandable hurt and pain expressed by Princes William and Harry has been deeply moving. The methods used by Mr Bashir were unethical and wrong, and clearly he should not have been re-employed by the BBC in 2016. The internal inquiry by the BBC into the interview was wholly inadequate.

It was right that Lord Dyson conducted this inquiry, and his findings are stark. The fact that the interview was obtained 25 years ago does not minimise the damage caused, and it is right that the BBC director-general has given an unequivocal apology. The onus is now on him to explain whether he considers that changes to the governance of the BBC in those 25 years mean that something like this could not happen again. I welcome the announcement of the review by the BBC board, its terms of reference, and the timescale to which it will report.

However, in among some of the commentary on the BBC that we have heard over the past few days, we must remember that the BBC is bigger than just Martin Bashir. It is bigger than “Panorama”, bigger than other programmes, and even bigger than the current affairs department. The BBC is one of the most trusted sources of news in the world, at a time when trusted sources are more important than ever before. The Secretary of State said in The Times today that he would not be having a knee-jerk reaction to this incident, and I welcome that commitment. The new director-general, and the chair of the BBC, whose appointments were welcomed by the Government, have been in post for less than a year. They need to be given time to make the reforms they have promised. The mid-term review is an important chance to take stock, but we must be clear exactly what problems any governance reforms will solve, and keep the issue of funding the BBC separate from its editorial control.

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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I thank the hon. Lady, and I agree with very much—indeed, almost everything—she said. On the governance of the BBC, as I said earlier, fundamental changes were made a few years ago, which we believe would have meant that somebody who wished to blow the whistle in the way that took place would have been listened to, and they would have had recourse to Ofcom if they were dissatisfied with the BBC. We must be absolutely sure that the new governance arrangements work properly, and there may well be need for further editorial oversight. That is what the BBC’s review is designed to reveal. However, I share her view about the importance of trust in the BBC. The mid-term review will be carefully conducted; we will not rush into any changes. Finally, I can confirm to the hon. Lady that the question of funding of the BBC is a separate one and that the licence fee—while it will be subject to debate, I have no doubt, in the coming years—is in place until the end of this charter in 2027.

Peter Bottomley Portrait Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

May I say to my right hon. Friend that he acted properly, in 2015, when he appointed Sir David Clementi to review the BBC? The Government were right to accept Sir David Clementi’s recommendations, which came only a few months later, putting right the absurd arrangements made in 2007 that left the BBC without a chair and led to all kinds of confusion.

May I also say to my right hon. Friend that the BBC is a beacon? Things did go wrong—by Martin Bashir, the double reviewing of what he had done and in his further reappointment back to the BBC; that is incontrovertible. But what should also be clear to the Government is that if we start attacking the BBC, we will throw out much more than we have, and if the choice is between the state broadcasting corporation—the BBC—or the United States, people in this country would rightly choose the BBC.

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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I must thank my hon. Friend for his words. He is absolutely right that the previous governance arrangements were deeply flawed, and Sir David Clementi, who conducted the review and then went on to become chair of the BBC, put in place a much stronger governance system, with both a stronger internal management board and external oversight, and we do believe that that would have been much more effective if it had been in place when some of the events we are debating took place. I also absolutely agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of the BBC. We have just heard a statement from my right hon Friend the Foreign Secretary about a country where public service broadcasting is not free, fair or independent. The BBC is a beacon of those things, and we are determined to strengthen it and to restore trust in it across the world.

John Nicolson Portrait John Nicolson (Ochil and South Perthshire) (SNP) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The BBC has questions to answer about its cover-up culture. Why did Director-General Tony Hall bring back Martin Bashir only five years ago as religion correspondent, given that he knew he had lied over the process used to secure the Princess Diana documentary? Who else was involved in the recruitment? Was Lord Hall warned that he would be dismissed if Lord Dyson’s conclusions were as critical of his behaviour as they were? What effect, if any, will Lord Hall’s behaviour have on his retirement package? Why was Martin Bashir allowed to resign rather than be sacked? The treatment of Matt Wiessler has been unforgivably cruel. Will the BBC now offer him an apology and a financial settlement? Whistleblowers should never again be punished, as happened to those on “Panorama” who say that their careers were blighted under Lord Hall after asking uncomfortable questions. Regaining trust will now need to be a top priority. The BBC board should be strengthened with independently-minded members with journalistic experience. The ongoing cover-up culture at the BBC is long standing and must now be addressed.

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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The hon. Gentleman speaks with experience, as a former employee of the BBC, and he raises extremely valid questions. As I say, the BBC is conducting an urgent investigation into the circumstances of the employment of Martin Bashir, but if questions remain following that, I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman, as a member of the Select Committee, will not be reticent in putting them to the BBC.

William Cash Portrait Sir William Cash (Stone) (Con) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will my right hon. Friend make it clear that both the BBC and Ofcom must understand that, following next year’s mid-term review, the Government propose to vary the charter and to make the guidelines, impartiality rules and complaints procedures subject to parliamentary approval, without any so-called independent editorial standards board, which is the same old BBC dodge of waiting until things die down and then carrying on as before that we witnessed after the Jimmy Savile affair in relation to whistleblowing, when it committed to deal with it, and it did not?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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I do not want to pre-empt either the BBC’s review of editorial oversight or the mid-term review, which we are only just beginning to work on, but my hon. Friend makes some extremely valid points. We placed impartiality in the first line of the BBC’s public purposes at the time of charter renewal, and we will wish to be satisfied that the BBC is delivering that, but I know that the new chair and the director-general take that very seriously.

Diane Abbott Portrait Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington) (Lab) [V]
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All over the world, people are appalled by the dishonesty and cruelty of the way Martin Bashir secured his interview with a very vulnerable Princess Diana 25 years ago. It is right that the BBC itself reviews again its editorial practices and how Martin Bashir came to be employed, but does the Minister appreciate that it remains a very valued national institution, both here and overseas? There is concern that long-standing enemies of the BBC are using the Bashir scandal to attack, defund and potentially dismantle our national broadcaster.

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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I absolutely assure the right hon. Lady that there is no question of dismantling or defunding the BBC. It is a priceless national asset, and one of the most serious consequences of the revelations of the past week is that its reputation and trust in it have been badly damaged. It is essential that it retains its position as the most trusted and reliable broadcaster in the world, and there is work to be done to restore that reputation.

Alun Cairns Portrait Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The BBC has seen a string of public scandals, from Jimmy Savile to the treatment of Lord McAlpine, Sir Cliff Richard and many others. All have stemmed from a drive to secure sensationalist media headlines, along with groupthink and a “we know best” approach. The BBC’s capacity to scrutinise, investigate and report on itself is in tatters, which is particularly worrying considering its huge resource, how it seeks to dominate the news space and its lack of transparency. Does my right hon. Friend agree that reform is needed, not only in the specific areas that Lord Dyson has pointed to, but of its culture, transparency and whether its dominance is undermining news plurality?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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I agree with my right hon. Friend. He is entirely right that this is not a one-off incident. There have been dreadful failings by the BBC in its journalism in recent years, and he mentioned three of them. I would say that all of those happened before the new charter was put in place, but we need to assess the effectiveness of the charter to ensure it is properly working, and that is something that we will start work on straightaway.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab)
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David Plowright, the chair and managing director of Granada Television in its great days, used to say regularly that he needed the BBC to keep the commercial sector honest. If the BBC cannot keep itself honest, we are in real trouble. Does the Minister agree that the changes at the BBC need to go beyond governance, structure and procedure, into a deep cultural change? How would he go about supporting that change?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) made the same point immediately before him. It is right that the BBC investigates the precise circumstances that led to Martin Bashir’s interview and the subsequent failure to investigate properly the complaints, but it goes wider than that. It is a question of culture. We are determined that the BBC should be properly reflective of the diversity of sex, race, thought and geography. In the future, it must not just be made up of people who pat themselves on the back and turn a blind eye when accusations are made. Fundamental reform is needed, but I am assured that the new management recognises that and is determined to address it.

Edward Leigh Portrait Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con)
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When are we going to have the guts to stop the BBC criminalising people for non-payment of the licence fee, which is no better than the poll tax?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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I understand my right hon. Friend’s strength of feeling. As he will know, we have now twice examined whether non-payment of the licence fee should be decriminalised, but this has revealed that if we decriminalise, there is a risk that the alternative enforcement mechanisms would lead to more distress for people who are perhaps not in a position to pay, with the possibility of bailiffs arriving and even greater fines. So we need to look at this very carefully. As we have said, we have not ruled out decriminalisation, but we are balancing that against the consequences of the alternatives, and that is something that the Government will continue to examine.

Jamie Stone Portrait Jamie Stone (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD) [V]
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As the House is aware, I am a Scottish politician. During the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, the BBC came under strong and sustained attack from the then First Minister, Mr Alex Salmond, a gentleman who now broadcasts on Russian television and refuses to acknowledge the enormity of the crime that was committed in Salisbury. I wonder, does the Minister agree that in the long term the editorial independence of the BBC and its protection from undue interference by politicians are paramount?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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I do agree with the hon. Gentleman. The independence of the BBC is absolutely central to its reputation for objectivity and reliability, and indeed it contrasts strongly with the channel that he also mentioned, RT, which has none of those things. We are absolutely committed to maintaining and indeed strengthening the independence, objectivity and fairness of the BBC.

Suzanne Webb Portrait Suzanne Webb (Stourbridge) (Con)
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My constituents in Stourbridge value the importance of public service broadcasting and a free press, as do I. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the BBC needs to improve its culture with a new emphasis on accuracy, impartiality and diversity of opinion, to ensure that the failures highlighted by Lord Dyson’s report can never happen again?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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I do agree with my hon. Friend. She is absolutely right to say that it is those qualities of accuracy, impartiality and fairness that are admired around the world as being as being represented by the BBC. That is why the revelations in the Dyson report are so damaging, because they cast doubt on those things. I can assure her that not just the Government but, I believe, the BBC are absolutely conscious of that and determined to put it right.

Kevin Brennan Portrait Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab)
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I welcome, in general, the tone that the Minister has adopted today in response to this. He said in his statement that

“the need for public service broadcasting and trusted journalism has never been stronger.”

He is absolutely right about that. That was also the conclusion of our Select Committee, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, when we recently reported on the future of public service broadcasting. This is an example of an era of journalism that was infected with a poisonous culture which unfortunately, in this case, spread to the BBC, which should have been displaying different kinds of values in its journalism. I just want to read a short quote from the National Union of Journalists parliamentary group, which said in its statement:

“It’s important for us also to reiterate that the BBC is not its management, past”—

--- Later in debate ---
Kevin Brennan Portrait Kevin Brennan
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

With your indulgence, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I apologise.

“It’s important for us to also reiterate that the BBC is not its management, past or present. The BBC and the values and principles of public service broadcasting it personifies is in fact our members, and all its staff, who do the work that makes the corporation an entity that is valued at home and throughout the world.”

Does the Minister agree with that statement?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
- Hansard - -

I do agree with that statement. There is no question but that the challenge posed by fake news and disinformation, which are circulating at a level we have never previously seen, makes it all the more important that there are trustworthy, reliable places where one can go without questioning the validity of what is being reported, and the BBC represents that above all else. I read with great interest the Select Committee report that the hon. Gentleman referred to, and in large part the Government completely agree with it, certainly, the importance of public service broadcasting —that has never been less, as was powerfully set out by His Royal Highness Prince William in his comments about this episode.

Julie Marson Portrait Julie Marson (Hertford and Stortford) (Con) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I was very struck by Matty Syed’s comment in The Sunday Times yesterday about “institutional narcissism” in the BBC. Although that might be slightly provocative, does my right hon. Friend believe that the current leadership of the BBC has a real sense of the cultural change that many believe is necessary to retain trust in the BBC, particularly in news and current affairs, and indeed the capacity to achieve that change?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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There is no question but that even before Lord Dyson’s report was published there was a widespread feeling that the culture in the BBC needed to change—that it was made up too much of people of the same mindset and the same background and from the same part of the world. That is something that I believe the new leadership—under the recently appointed chair, Richard Sharp, and the director-general—are aware of and intend to address.

Janet Daby Portrait Janet Daby (Lewisham East) (Lab) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am very grateful for this urgent question. In its response to Lord Dyson’s report, the BBC board has said that it will review and assess

“the robustness and independence of whistleblowing processes”.

How important does the Secretary of State consider independence on whistleblowing, including the protection of whistleblowers, to be?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
- Hansard - -

I regard it as absolutely essential in not just the BBC but all public bodies. We need to make sure that, in future, if somebody blows the whistle and exposes malpractice in the BBC, the consequence is that somebody else gets fired, not that they do.

Bernard Jenkin Portrait Sir Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Does my right hon. Friend agree that part of the problem in the culture of the BBC is that people often confuse the need to be accountable with a threat to the independence of their editorial judgment and that they therefore avoid that accountability? Does the board now accept that until a permanent and completely independent body oversees editorial policy, complaints procedures and whistleblowing—like a kind of accident investigation body—we will not see that change of culture, because people will go back to their established custom, which is to deny accountability?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
- Hansard - -

My hon. Friend is right that we need to see much stronger oversight of the editorial decision-making process in the BBC. The BBC board covers a vast range of different aspects of the BBC’s activities—its strategy, its budget and so on—and there is a case for greater oversight, particularly of journalistic and editorial decisions. Quite how that is brought about is something that the review that the BBC has put in place is examining urgently. I understand that that review will publish a report by September, and we will obviously want to look at it very carefully.

Hannah Bardell Portrait Hannah Bardell (Livingston) (SNP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Thank you for calling me, Madam Deputy Speaker:

“Trust is the foundation of the BBC.”

So says its values—except if you are trying to cover up a serial sex offender scandal such as that involving Jimmy Savile, do over a respected journalist such as Carrie Gracie or lie and cheat to get your exclusive interview with a princess.

As Lord Dyson’s report states,

“the investigation conducted by Lord Hall…was flawed and woefully ineffective”.

To add insult, a 2018 report found that Scottish fee payers subsidise broadcasting in the rest of the UK by £100 million a year. Is it not about time that Scotland stopped having to subsidise such ineptitude by those at the top of the BBC and that the Government acted to ensure that everyone in the UK is fairly treated and represented by the BBC?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
- Hansard - -

The BBC is the British Broadcasting Corporation. It reports on activities across the United Kingdom. It is paid for by every person resident in the United Kingdom who has a television. Impartiality and fairness apply as much in its reporting of domestic politics as they do internationally. There are questions to be answered, as I agreed earlier, and the hon. Lady is correct. However, I do believe that the British Broadcasting Corporation should remain a beacon of impartiality for all residents of the United Kingdom.

Iain Duncan Smith Portrait Sir Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

May I take my right hon. Friend back to the one bit of the Dyson report that has left us with a serious question? It relates to the behaviour of the then chairman and of Mr Bashir. Fraud is defined as a deception intended to result in financial or personal gain by false representation. There is no question from the report but that Mr Bashir made false representation to prey on a vulnerable woman to get her to do something that she would otherwise not have done. Furthermore, it refers to the fact, but does not conclude anything from it, that Mr Hall and others therefore covered up that process; again, I think that opens them up to the idea of fraud. Has my right hon. Friend decided to refer those people to the Director of Public Prosecutions?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
- Hansard - -

The questions surrounding the employment of Martin Bashir are being urgently investigated by the corporation, as I said, and I expect a statement to be made very shortly. On whether any criminal offences have been committed, I understand that a request has gone to the Metropolitan police to examine the evidence that has been revealed and reach a judgment on it; it is a matter for the police to determine.

Damian Green Portrait Damian Green (Ashford) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is clear that shameful journalistic practices took place and that the investigations into them were, at best, profoundly inadequate. Does my right hon. Friend agree not only that the BBC needs to clean up its act in quite a considerable way, but that this lamentable episode should not be used as an excuse to severely damage or destroy an institution that is hugely valued by tens of millions of people in this country and millions more around the world?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
- Hansard - -

I entirely share my right hon. Friend’s admiration for the BBC, which at its best is the finest broadcaster in the world. That is what makes these revelations so painful: that an institution that we all admire should be found capable of such appalling failings. I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend; our intention is to restore trust in the BBC, certainly not in any way to diminish it as one of our great national assets.

Steve McCabe Portrait Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am sure that many people will have been disgusted by the behaviour of Martin Bashir and those senior figures who failed to address his actions, but does the Secretary of State agree that demands for the present Government to act against today’s BBC over events that occurred more than a quarter of a century ago could look a little ridiculous?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
- Hansard - -

I am sure that I speak for the Secretary of State in saying that it is not a question of punishing the BBC—particularly for events that happened a long time ago, as the hon. Gentleman says—but it is essential that we learn the lessons from what happened then. As I said, we have already put significant changes in place since those episodes occurred, but we need to be absolutely certain that the current governance arrangements are effective and that these appalling incidents could not have happened if they had been in place.

Lee Anderson Portrait Lee Anderson (Ashfield) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Now then: the findings of the Dyson report come as no surprise to many residents in Ashfield who have lost all confidence in the BBC. I personally have ripped up my TV licence, and it will not get another penny from me ever, because in my opinion the once great BBC is rotten. My constituents should not have to pay for a service if they do not use it. Does my right hon. Friend agree that one way to make the BBC behave in future is to make it a subscription service?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
- Hansard - -

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that one of the great challenges that the BBC faces is to reconnect with the people he represents. There is a widespread feeling that the BBC is too metropolitan-centred and has lost touch with the views of a large part of the British population; I think that the BBC itself recognises that. With regard to subscription, the licence fee is in place until 2027 when the current charter expires, but there is bound to be a debate about the future funding. Moving fully to a subscription model would require quite significant changes to the way in which people receive their television, but I have no doubt that that is a debate that has already started and will continue.

Neale Hanvey Portrait Neale Hanvey (Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath) (Alba) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

At its heart, the Dyson report speaks to the missing values of integrity, honesty and the value of truth at the BBC. Following the biased coverage of the 2014 independence referendum, this crisis in trust is but a taste of what audiences in Scotland have known for years. The BBC brand is broken in Scotland and broadcasting must therefore be devolved, or at the very least must see the introduction of a new funding model, where all money raised in Scotland is spent in Scotland. Many will be bewildered by today’s handwringing over integrity and impartiality, when the broadcaster saw no issue in giving space to the Scottish leader of the UK Independence party in 2016, yet refused any place for my party in the 2021 debates, despite being led by a former First Minister, two sitting MPs and numerous councillors across Scotland. Why are the UK Government so quick to act when public trust has been broken now, but have been silent on the collapse in trust among viewers in Scotland for years? As a net contributor to the BBC, with a £43 million annual shortfall between income and spending in Scotland, how do the UK Government plan to plug the hole left propping up programming elsewhere upon Scotland’s independence?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
- Hansard - -

The BBC is committed to impartiality in its coverage of all political events, including the referendum in Scotland and the current political debate. It is very important that the independence of the BBC is defended and that it resists political pressure from political parties in Scotland, be it the SNP or indeed some new offshoot from it.

Sara Britcliffe Portrait Sara Britcliffe (Hyndburn) (Con) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

With the mid-point review of the BBC charter imminent, does the Minister agree with many of my constituents across Hyndburn and Haslingden that everything must be on the table for discussion, including its governance structures? Can he clarify that the scope of any future inquiries will cover the wider culture at the BBC?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
- Hansard - -

The mid-term review is about the governance of the BBC and the new arrangements which were put in place. It will certainly incorporate a consideration of the culture to ensure that the BBC, in its present form, is delivering on its public purposes. It is a mid-term review of the existing charter. There will be an opportunity for a more fundamental examination of every aspect of the BBC, including its funding, when we come to the renewal of the charter, but that is still not until 2027.

Tahir Ali Portrait Tahir Ali (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Can the Minister explain which elements of the BBC’s governance structure he thinks need to be reviewed in the light of Lord Dyson’s report? Does he agree that in considering the Dyson report we should all remember the BBC’s contribution to the UK’s economy, culture, democracy and soft power abroad?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
- Hansard - -

As I said, the Government very much hope that the new governance arrangements now in place are sufficient, but the purpose of the mid-term review is to assess that and see whether any further changes need to be made. With regard to the contribution of the BBC to the economy of this country and to democratic debate, I entirely share the hon. Gentleman’s view that the BBC plays a central part in both.

Richard Drax Portrait Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con)
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I must declare an interest: I worked for BBC South Today and BBC Radio Solent for nine very happy years, where I witnessed the highest standards and was never influenced—ever—on how I was to report, other than fairly, in a balanced way and accurately. It seems to me that the problem is at the national level with senior management. Can my right hon. Friend tell the House how to ensure that senior management at the top of the BBC are, in future, independent and meet the all very high standards we want them to meet?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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I am pleased to hear what my hon. Friend says about the high standards that pertained when he was working for the BBC. Obviously, that is something we hope will represent the BBC’s values in future. In terms of the leadership and management, the review which has been conducted by the BBC into the specific lessons to be learned from Lord Dyson’s report will feed into the wider reform agenda, which I think the board is determined to pursue. There is no question that there is a problem with culture at the BBC which goes beyond just the failings identified by Lord Dyson. I can assure my hon. Friend that that is something the leadership of the BBC does now recognise and is working hard to address.

Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Portrait Mr Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (Slough) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hurt and anger felt by Princes William and Harry and other members of the royal family is palpable and painful. I am so glad that there has been an unequivocal apology from the BBC and the launch of the lessons learned report on account of the diabolical journalistic practices endured by Princess Diana in 1995, but, of course, the BBC is so much more than a single programme; it is a treasured institution that has contributed immensely to our nation over the last century. So does the Minister agree that it is very distasteful to see a feeding frenzy, especially from those with a severe dislike of the BBC? Does he also agree that it is the pinnacle of irony for the Prime Minister to be talking about being immensely concerned about journalism standards, given that he himself was sacked by The Times for inventing a quote?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
- Hansard - -

The hon. Gentleman was doing fine until the end. This is a more serious matter. I certainly agree with him about the distress that has been caused to the royal family, which has been very powerfully expressed by His Royal Highness Prince William. That is something that the BBC recognises, which is why it is acting to address it. I can only repeat what I have said already: the trust in the BBC is one of its greatest assets and the BBC now has to work hard to restore that.

John Redwood Portrait John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

How can someone who supports Brexit, believes in the Union and loves England be persuaded that the BBC’s view of public service broadcasting will in future be fair to their views? In future, will the BBC allow the majority on these issues more voice and less denigration?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
- Hansard - -

I can answer my right hon. Friend by saying that I am one of the people he has described precisely, in all three of those measures, and I, too, have occasionally been concerned at what appeared to be a lack of impartiality in the BBC on some of those issues. That is something that has been, I think, felt by a large number of people. It is the job of the BBC—as I say, it is the first public purpose of the BBC—to deliver impartiality. I know that that is something that the leadership of the BBC which is now in place is absolutely committed to, but it will be examining ways in which that can be strengthened where necessary.

Martyn Day Portrait Martyn Day (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (SNP) [V]
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While Ministers toy with taking greater personal control of the BBC, true democratic reform remains out of reach. So, rather than stifling journalistic freedom, will the Minister consider devolving broadcasting powers to the devolved nations to ensure democratic, local regulation of BBC services?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
- Hansard - -

The Government have no intention of imposing greater control over the leadership of the BBC. The BBC is independent and we are committed to respecting and strengthening that independence, When it comes to the question of governmental responsibility, it is not a devolved matter; the BBC is a national broadcaster covering the whole of the United Kingdom, so we believe that it is right that it remains the responsibility of the UK Government as a whole.

Huw Merriman Portrait Huw Merriman (Bexhill and Battle) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I chair the all-party parliamentary group on the BBC and I say in that regard that this has not been a good chapter for the BBC’s fine history and it is important that it learns the lessons. I welcome the Minister’s very balanced tone. No one has done more in this place to try to reform the BBC and move it to that better place. Will he describe a little more about the review process that will apply the conditions that exist now with regard to governance, versus what would have occurred beforehand? Who will perform that role? Will it be his Department, his officials, or will he bring somebody in to assist in that regard?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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As my hon. Friend knows, the mid-term review was not actually due to take place until next year; it was written into the charter that it should be in 2022. We would almost certainly have started thinking about the issues to be considered and the questions needing to be addressed in any case, but this issue has made that more urgent, and the Secretary of State has it made clear that we are starting work on it now. Precisely how the mid-term review will operate and whether we will invite external submissions is not yet determined, but I will certainly try to ensure that my hon. Friend is the first to know when we have further announcements to make.

Gregory Campbell Portrait Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP) [V]
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Some have sought to defend the BBC by saying that the disgraceful Martin Bashir incident was 25 years ago, and indeed it was. However, since 1995, we have had the Jimmy Savile cover-up; the disgraceful incident regarding the surveillance of the search of the Cliff Richard home; the political partisanship of Emily Maitlis on “Newsnight”; and recently—in the past week or so—we heard about a BBC Palestinian expert on the BBC who, before she was employed by the BBC, tweeted that Israel is more Nazi than Hitler. The mid-term review surely offers the opportunity for radical, fundamental change at the BBC.

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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I can tell the hon. Gentleman that a lot of the incidents he mentioned took place before the new governance arrangements were in place, but we obviously need to consider whether there are lessons to be learned from those incidents for our mid-term review. If that journalist’s tweets regarding Israel and Palestine are shown to be genuine, it is my view that anybody who can express such opinions should not be employed by the BBC.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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In order that arrangements can be made for the next business, I will now briefly suspend the House for three minutes.

Oral Answers to Questions

John Whittingdale Excerpts
Thursday 18th March 2021

(7 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
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What steps the Government is taking to ensure the free flow of data to and from the EU. (913591)

John Whittingdale Portrait The Minister for Media and Data (Mr John Whittingdale)
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Under UK law, personal data can currently flow freely from the UK to the EU. The trade agreement also ensures the continued temporary free flow of personal data from the EU to the UK until adequacy decisions are adopted. The European Commission published positive draft adequacy decisions on 19 February and we expect the EU to complete the technical approval process soon.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner [V]
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We all know how important the flow of data is for UK business, but frankly the Government have handed the powers to the EU to turn our data on and off. They have turned us into supplicants, effectively. What are the contingency plans, given that relationships are frosty, should the EU use those powers?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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As I say, the EU Commission has already provided an assessment of the UK’s data protection laws, which found us to be adequate, and there is absolutely no reason why that should not be confirmed once the processes are under way. However, we have said that it is sensible for businesses to make contingency plans by putting alternative transfer mechanisms in place, just in case there comes a point at some future date, but we expect adequacy to be granted within the timescale permitted.

David Johnston Portrait David Johnston (Wantage) (Con)
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What progress his Department has made on allocating further support to the culture and heritage sector through the Culture Recovery Fund. (913592)

--- Later in debate ---
Richard Holden Portrait Mr Richard Holden (North West Durham) (Con)
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What steps the Government are taking to ensure fair competition for the fourth national lottery licence. (913595)

John Whittingdale Portrait The Minister for Media and Data (Mr John Whittingdale)
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The national lottery is a national treasure that enhances the cultural and sporting lives of millions of people across the UK, and it has funded over £1 billion in projects supporting the response to covid-19. The Gambling Commission is running the competition for the next licence and is following best practice from across the public sector for competitions of this nature.

Richard Holden Portrait Mr Holden
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I thank the Minister for his answer. It is vital that the national lottery competition is not just open and transparent but seen to be open and transparent by everyone involved. One of the biggest funds that the national lottery supports is grassroots sport. This week, Consett AFC heard that its FA Vase final will have to be played without any supporters at it, despite the FA cup final just a couple of weeks later being played with supporters. May I urge the Minister to speak to colleagues and the FA to see whether there is any possibility that this vital final—the first time Consett has been to Wembley in over 120 years—might be played with fans?

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I am not quite sure that the two are linked.

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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I am aware that my hon. Friend is a huge fan of Consett AFC, and of course he and his fellow fans are very excited about this historic match, which is due to take place in Wembley. We are working to try to get spectators back into stadiums as soon as possible. I fully understand his disappointment that it does not look as if it will be possible in time for the match, but I have no doubt that he and thousands of others will be cheering on his team from their sofas.

Alex Sobel Portrait Alex Sobel (Leeds North West) (Lab/Co-op) [V]
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I will ask a question more directly to do with the national lottery. The national lottery helps to fund many charities, cultural organisations and heritage sites, and whoever is awarded the new licence must be beyond reproach. Conservative party donor Richard Desmond—who persuaded the Prime Minister to raise the jackpot limit to benefit his own lottery and then successfully lobbied the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government over the controversial Westferry development, saving himself £40 million, resulting in an unlawful planning decision that was followed soon after by another donation to the Conservative party—wants to run our national lottery. Does the Minister believe that Mr Desmond is a fit and proper person to do this?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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The hon. Gentleman is right about the importance of the national lottery. Indeed, I point out that his constituency has received over £6 million in funding over the last five years. Which applicant should take on the franchise is determined by the Gambling Commission, and of course it will want to be satisfied that the successful applicant meets the highest standards of probity and integrity, but it is a matter for the Gambling Commission.

Antony Higginbotham Portrait Antony Higginbotham (Burnley) (Con)
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What steps his Department is taking to support the return of elite sport as covid-19 restrictions are eased. (913596)

Covid-19: Cultural and Entertainment Sectors

John Whittingdale Excerpts
Tuesday 2nd March 2021

(7 months, 4 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Alison McGovern Portrait Alison McGovern (Wirral South) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), who said a great deal in such a short time. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

If there is one person who truly appreciates the creative industries in this country, it is the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I know that he has not created employment support schemes that are remotely suitable for the creative industries, and I know that the Tory post-Brexit agreement really screws creative professionals and their ability to get work, but he does love his videographer, and his Instagram account is testament to his adoration of professional photographers. His Twitter feed tells the world how much he appreciates his stylist, and I heard that his Pinterest is extensive. Good luck to him, I say. Some people want substance from their policies, but it is absolutely clear that the Tory party would prefer a shiny veneer.

This debate comes the day before the Budget, which will be a fiscal event that should announce a much-needed, overdue continuation of business support and help for families through this unprecedented time. That should be a given; it should have been done by now. Today’s Budget trail, which coincidentally came out the same day as this cross-party general debate, tells us that the Government have found some more cash for the culture recovery fund. Support is welcome, but as Member after Member has said, that funding saves buildings, not jobs. It is a year since many freelancers have had any income at all. As Members have said, freelancers have been able to apply for some of the funding in Wales and Scotland. Can the Minister say what consideration he has given to a similar approach in England?

What is really lacking is a plan for how our country will earn a living after all we have been through. We need businesses that are fast-growing and offer good-quality jobs, and for that we need the creative and cultural sectors, because they are big and growing. As a whole, DCMS businesses, excluding tourism, contributed £224 billion to the UK in 2018—12% of the economy. Creative businesses exported £36 billion-worth worldwide, and in gross were up 7.5% on the previous year, meaning that growth in the sector is five times that of the British economy as a whole. Important as they are, manufacturing flatlined, and financial services actually fell. Creative businesses are a growing part of our economy.

Tomorrow should be about the future and how we will create the framework to make sure the UK can start growing again. That is why the economic story of creative industries is so important. We have heard from colleagues from right across the country—from Cardiff, Belfast, Barking, Clacton, Coventry, Sheffield, Hull, Batley, Blaydon, Sunderland, Warley, Manchester, Salford, Pontypridd and many more. It is clear from all those contributions that the role of the creative industries and their ability to make life good is not a phenomenon unique to London and the south-east, as the cultural and economic dominance of those areas suggests. We want a plan for the growth of creativity that serves the whole of the UK.

Recent bids to the Government ahead of the spending review showed that West Yorkshire, the west midlands, Liverpool city region and Manchester city region all have cultural plans for their economies, but they are being ignored by the Government, and it is hard to see why. It is not that we want to move cultural and creative economies from London to elsewhere; rather, we want to enable growth where local leaders are clearly crying out for it. The potential is there; we just need to make the most of it.

The glaringly obvious plan that would serve our country so well has been ignored. Too often, the pandemic response has been made up of piecemeal, last-minute decisions. This week is a case in point. People still do not know how long they will be furloughed for and for how long they can be. The industry faces a VAT cliff edge, and freelancers are still uncertain about whether the Budget will finally offer them some much-needed support after a year of hardship.

The truth is that, from listening to the Secretary of State, it was clear from the very beginning that there was no plan to rebalance our economy in the way that city region leaders would like. The Secretary of State gave the game away. All their hotch-potch announcements were aimed at one thing: saving the Crown jewels, as the Secretary of State himself said. It does not matter if someone runs a creative business in Newcastle or Bristol. Unless they run a well-endowed cultural institution that happens to be a short walk from this building, they are nobody’s priority, and it shows. The Government have had a year to finesse their policy responses. Membership organisations and trade unions such as the Musicians’ Union, Equity and the Writers’ Guild all stand ready to help, but too often are ignored.

We heard from Members across the House that every opportunity for creative workers is essential, but the Government actively took away opportunities and made matters worse when they failed on their promises to ensure that creative workers would not face unnecessary bureaucracy and barriers to touring in Europe. We heard throughout the debate that that is an essential step. The Government say they want to fix the post-Brexit situation. They simply must make it happen and we have seen too little progress.

That leads me to my final question for Ministers on the gap between reality and what they say. The question I really want to ask the Secretary of State and the Minister here today is this: what do they think their Department is for anymore? When it comes to financial support for creatives, their only job is passing on messages from the Treasury. When it comes to touring after Brexit, the Minister’s job is to pass messages on from the Home Office. When it comes to covid, they just pass messages on from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, or maybe it is now the recently ennobled Brexit negotiator—who really knows? The fact is that the DCMS has been reduced to the Government’s equivalent of a voicemail service—they just pass on the message. Let us be honest: too often DCMS Ministers are just not in charge of anything.

There is one final point I really want to make. The Government’s road map for unlocking our freedoms gives a series of “not before” dates that help us to plan for the best-case scenario. We all want to be back in theatres, to be part of a crowd again. Many of us long for the day when we can walk down the road to a football stadium and feel the electricity of that first tackle flying in. We long for the chance to hear a singer lift up their microphone and pierce the atmosphere with a ringing sound. Before the pandemic, I thought I was getting old. Now, if somebody, for example my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith), offered me the chance to go for an evening out, you would never get me off the dancefloor. The pandemic has robbed us of not just a fast-growing industry but, as I have said, everything that makes life good. All the things that make life enjoyable are gone, so when we get them back—when we get galleries, festivals, music and art back—I truly hope that the country we choose to build from this point can include everyone in the happiness of creativity, and can give everyone that sense of something beyond the daily grind. I hope the lives we have lived during this covid pandemic make us all the more joyful at having culture back in our life.

John Whittingdale Portrait The Minister for Media and Data (Mr John Whittingdale)
- Hansard - -

It is a pleasure to respond to this important debate on behalf of the Government. As the Minister for Digital and Culture, my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) said at the beginning, this has been a hugely challenging year for the entertainment and cultural sectors. Although the vast number of businesses in this country have suffered from the restrictions of lockdown, it is perhaps, as my hon. Friends the Members for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) and for North West Durham (Mr Holden) said, the entertainment and cultural sectors that have been hit among the hardest in the economy.

I would like to thank all those who have participated in the debate. We have had 55 Back-Bench speeches during the course of the debate, and I know, as you indicated, Mr Deputy Speaker, that more wanted to speak but were unable to do so. The passion shown today is a demonstration of how important culture and entertainment are not just to our economy and our heritage, but to our wellbeing as a nation. A number of speakers emphasised that by pointing out the economic contribution that the creative industries make, in particular my hon. Friends the Members for Clacton (Giles Watling), for High Peak (Robert Largan), for Bury North (James Daly) and for Bolton West (Chris Green), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers). They all pointed to the vast contribution—£116 billion—that the creative industries make, supporting 2.1 million jobs. However, they also went on to point out that the contribution is not just economic.

The cultural industries and entertainment sector are critical to the wellbeing of the nation. They bring joy to us. Although many have been unable to operate over the past year, I pay tribute to those who have sought to fill the gap, in particular the broadcasters who have done a fantastic job in keeping us entertained and keeping up the morale of the nation. However, it is not the same as being able to enjoy at first hand the cultural interactions that bring so much value to our lives. I think we all yearn to be able to walk through a museum again, to sit and watch a play or, in my case particularly, to go to the cinema and to enjoy live music. As the hon. Members for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) and for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) said, live music brings an enjoyment that all of us feel is absent from our lives. I have taken particular note of the recommendation from my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) to look up Deco and their mash-ups as soon as I am able to do so again.

A number of Members have spoken with great power about the cultural institutions in their own constituencies. We are, of course, familiar with west end theatre, which is famous throughout the world, but there are other theatres in London, including the Theatre Royal at Stratford, mentioned by the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge), and the New Wimbledon Theatre, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond). However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) said, it is not just about London. We should recognise that the cultural institutions of our country are strong right across all our nations. One of my regrets is that I was appointed to this job just three weeks before lockdown started, and I wish for the day when I can go out and visit some of the places that have been mentioned, including the opera house in Buxton, the railways of Darlington, the zoo in Dudley, the castle in Dover and even Funny Girls in Blackpool.

The best support that we can give to all these cultural institutions is an assurance that the time when they can reopen is coming. That is why the road map is so critical, as my hon. Friends the Members for Gravesham (Adam Holloway) and for Bracknell (James Sunderland) pointed out. We now have a clear plan, which is irreversible. We have a certainty that we can give as to when these institutions can start to operate again. Of course I understand that people would rather this happened sooner, but I can say to my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell that grass-roots sport, including golf, will be able to resume from 29 March. The reason that we have been able to offer that assurance has been the success of the vaccination programme, as my hon. Friends the Members for Blackpool South (Scott Benton) and for Dudley North (Marco Longhi) pointed out, and I pay tribute to all those who have worked so hard to roll it out and continue to do so—including, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North, who told us that he was a volunteer in his local vaccination centre.

The worst thing that could happen to our cultural institutions would be to give them a date on which they could reopen and then have to reverse it again. We all know the huge disappointment and, indeed, cost to many who had planned to reopen. An example was Bill Kenwright’s “Love Letters”, which was due to reopen at the beginning of December but, just a few days later, London was put back into tier 3 status and it was unable to go ahead. So we need to be relatively confident about those dates.

Several hon. Members mentioned the work that the Department is doing, particularly to explore how large events can return, preferably without social distancing and restrictive capacity caps. I want to assure my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt), my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet and my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon that we have established the events research programme to look at how those large events can resume. In doing so, we are looking at the pilots that were conducted last year to consider the effectiveness of various measures to reduce the transmission risk in larger venues, including testing. Officials from my Department and from the Department of Health and Social Care are working closely to combine the existing workstreams into one overall research programme, and that programme will start with events such as Project Encore, which will hopefully set out the road map for when those larger events, which are perhaps the most challenging, can start again.

A number of my hon. Friends have recognised the huge commitment that the Government have made to the cultural sector through the £1.57 billion cultural recovery fund. I would like to thank my hon. Friends the Members for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson), for Gloucester (Richard Graham) and for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) for recognising the strength of that commitment, and, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter), who pointed out that, on top of the £1.57 billion, we have the £500 million film and TV production restart scheme. And of course the Government recognise the need to continue that support until these institutions can reopen once again. I cannot give details of what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor the Exchequer will announce tomorrow, although there have already been some indications that he will be giving further support to the cultural sector. As I have said, the sector has benefited and should continue to do so, and I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan) that that includes nightclubs and music venues, which have been eligible for support.

As many Members have recognised, our cultural and entertainment sectors are world-leading. They are a major contributor not just to the economic growth of this country but to our standing around the world. I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Ben Everitt): I am confident that when we resume, those sectors will come back even stronger.

Oral Answers to Questions

John Whittingdale Excerpts
Thursday 10th December 2020

(10 months, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Martyn Day Portrait Martyn Day (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (SNP)
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What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the retention of (a) the GDPR and (b) other EU regulations on data protection after the transition period. (910119)

John Whittingdale Portrait The Minister for Media and Data (Mr John Whittingdale)
- Hansard - -

The general data protection regulation regime will be retained in domestic law after the transition period through the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. The UK remains committed to maintaining high data protection standards now and in the future.

Martyn Day Portrait Martyn Day [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The EU has been a world leader when it comes to the protection of citizens’ digital rights. This is evidenced by the large number of countries, such as South Korea, Japan and Brazil, that sought to emulate its groundbreaking GDPR policy. As the end of the transition period looms, how will the UK Government ensure that digital rights law not only lives up to the EU’s high standards but exceeds them?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
- Hansard - -

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the GDPR has ensured that we have high standards and, as I say, we are absolutely committed to maintaining them. We have no intention of diverging substantially from GDPR, but obviously we will be looking to see whether there are ways in which we can improve our regime while maintaining those high standards.

John Nicolson Portrait John Nicolson (Ochil and South Perthshire) (SNP) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The independent Information Commissioner recently revealed that the Conservative party had racially and religiously profiled 10 million voters at the last election. I was shocked to learn that it did this by buying data that

“identified a person’s…ethnic origin and religion based on their first and last name.”

Can the Minister explain to the House why his party does this?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
- Hansard - -

As I recall, the Information Commissioner examined the practices of all political parties and made comments against all of them. However, it did not find that any breaches of the law had occurred.

Gavin Newlands Portrait Gavin Newlands (Paisley and Renfrewshire North) (SNP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

What recent steps his Department has taken to tackle the proliferation of (a) misinformation and (b) disinformation online. (910124)

Coronation Street: 60th Anniversary

John Whittingdale Excerpts
Wednesday 2nd December 2020

(10 months, 4 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)
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I call the fount of all knowledge on “Coronation Street”, John Whittingdale.

John Whittingdale Portrait The Minister for Media and Data (Mr John Whittingdale)
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I am not sure I can claim that title, particularly having listened to the contributions this evening. I would like to start by congratulating the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) on obtaining the debate and managing to unite the House. Members on both sides of the House have spoken with real admiration and affection for what is undoubtedly the world’s greatest soap.

I am delighted to join others in congratulating “Coronation Street” and ITV on the 60th anniversary. At the beginning of this year, the programme transmitted its 10,000th episode, and the 60th anniversary is next week. It is the world’s longest running soap opera, and it is still the most popular. It also demonstrates the extraordinary changes that have taken place in the media landscape over those 60 years. Today, it is still bringing in the biggest audience of any soap, but that is around 7 million, whereas in the ’90s, it was regularly getting 20 million. Indeed, the departure of Hilda Ogden in the 1987 Christmas episode had an audience of 26.65 million. It is still getting something like a third of the audience share. This just shows how linear television has changed during that time, but nevertheless, “Coronation Street” has maintained its position at No.1.

I cannot claim the encyclopaedic knowledge that has been displayed by so many Members, but I, too, have twice visited the set of “Coronation Street”. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns) said, the first time I did so was with Margaret Thatcher in January 1990, and it was indeed the case that I had to brief her on the way to the set on the characters who were stars at that time. I did indeed go through all the various storylines, and she was particularly keen to visit Alf Roberts’ corner shop, because of course her own father was Alfred Roberts, who ran the grocer’s shop in Grantham. She arrived on set and was very upset to see that Alf Roberts’ corner shop had the sign saying, “Licensed to sell alcohol”. She said that that would certainly have never been allowed in her father’s shop, as he would not have dreamt of selling alcohol. Having said that, she did then visit the Rovers Return, but she was very clear that she would have a bitter lemon from behind the bar.

Some 24 years later, I was lucky enough to visit the set again. This was organised by the redoubtable Jane Luca, of ITV, whom I suspect was responsible for the visits of most of my hon. Friends who have spoken of their own experiences. She organised for the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, which I was Chair of at the time, to visit the new set. This was in 2014, after the set had been transferred to the new location in MediaCityUK in Salford. I was indeed accompanied by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West, whose excitement at going to the new set I remember. We met a number of cast members, including Michelle Keegan and Sam Aston. One thing that struck me was that the set had been made slightly bigger so that two cars could drive down the street and pass each other, and 54,000 cobbles had been laid, with extraordinary attention to detail. Each cobble was both positioned and weathered in order that it remained absolutely authentic. My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) referred to the extraordinary amount of ancillary occupations involved and jobs created on a major TV production—I suspect that the 54,000 cobbles employed quite a lot of people.

Over the years, “Coronation Street” has had a number of famous visitors. There is a wonderful picture of Alfred Hitchcock peering around the door of the Rovers Return, and a young Prince Charles visited. As the hon. Member for Batley and Spen and one or two others have said, many great actors started their careers in Weatherfield; as well as the hon. Lady, we have the trio of theatrical knights, Sir Ben Kingsley, Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart, as well as Sarah Lancashire and Joanna Lumley. As well as the actors, screenwriters such as Jack Rosenthal and Russell T. Davies started off in “Coronation Street”, and directors such as Paul Greengrass, Mike Newell and Michael Apted all directed episodes.

A number of the speakers in this debate have referred to the willingness of “Coronation Street” to confront difficult issues, and we have heard a number of examples of that, starting with the issue of racism in the very early episodes in the 1960s. Since then, it has addressed teenage pregnancy; domestic abuse, of both males as well as females; and transgender issues. It has even covered the challenge of someone having to try to find the money to pay the TV licence and failing, with this resulting in imprisonment. I am happy to tell the hon. Lady that almost nobody now goes to prison for a failure to pay the TV licence or meet the fine. I am sorry that in her case this came at a time when that was not true.

Tracy Brabin Portrait Tracy Brabin
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It was pressure from this place that changed that law and a subsequent “Panorama” programme that unearthed all these cases of women who were sent straight to prison for non-payment. So I would like to thank the predecessors of MPs in here who saved so many women from experiencing that.

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
- Hansard - -

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that. It has been some years since anyone was sent to prison for that and I hope it does not happen again, but it was disproportionately women who suffered.

My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith) talked about the issue of raising awareness of sepsis. It is perhaps worth observing that there cannot be another street in Britain that has experienced so many disasters and so many tragedies in such a short space of time.

Of course, most recently, the programme has had to wrestle with the challenges of covid, both in terms of production and also as a storyline. Covid stopped production of “Coronation Street” in March, but it was able to resume in June under the protocols to ensure safety. I want to pay tribute to the ITV health and safety team and to Magnus Brooke of ITV who played a very large part in helping to draw up those protocols so that not just ITV Studios productions could get going again, but all the other broadcasters and film companies could, too.

I have been chairing the broadcasting, film and production working group, which has brought together representatives of all the broadcasters, film companies and production companies to discuss how we could get production going again. We have now put in place very strict protocols to ensure that production can take place safely. As the hon. Member for Batley and Spen mentioned, we have also put in place the £500 million film and TV restart scheme. She is absolutely right that one obstacle was the difficulty in obtaining insurance of productions against the possibility of their having to stop because of covid. I am glad to say that that is in place and, as a result, productions have been resumed by most of the major broadcasters and film companies, but it has required some quite inventive solutions.

I understand that, on “Coronation Street”, furniture is quite often placed between characters in order that they can remain apart and socially distanced. Indeed, in a particularly inventive way, filming of romantic scenes takes place with one actor sitting on one end of a sofa looking longingly at a tennis ball suspended from the ceiling and then, once that section has been filmed, the other actor takes their place at the other end of the sofa and stares at a different tennis ball longingly and the production crew then splice the two together so that no one can tell. It is very important not just, obviously, that production is done safely, but that a show like “Coronation Street” gets across the public messaging about the importance of maintaining social distancing and mask wearing. “Coronation Street” had the socially distanced wedding between Maria and Gary.

I fear that it is almost certain that Weatherfield would still be in tier 3 at the end of the national lockdown, which would mean that the Rovers Return would be able to supply only a takeaway service, but I hope that it would not be long before the Rovers Return would be in tier 2, which would, of course, allow the sale of alcohol with a substantial meal such as Betty’s hotpot.

The hon. Lady also rightly referred to the importance of the UK production sector and our creative industries and the need to ensure that every region and every nation of the UK benefits from them, and we have been very keen to ensure that more production is done outside London. The BBC now has a major centre in Salford at MediaCity. ITV is now located with the “Coronation Street” set there. I have also had the pleasure of visiting the “Emmerdale” set in Leeds. ITV still has a presence in Leeds and Channel 4 has now established its headquarters in Leeds. I am absolutely clear that it is very important that we continue to encourage production to take place right across the UK, because it brings enormous economic benefits in terms of jobs and wealth creation.

The hon. Member for Batley and Spen and my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham referred to the importance of public service broadcasting. We are living through extraordinary changes in the media landscape that have brought huge extra opportunities for viewers in the range of content available through a number of streaming services that did not even exist two or three years ago. Now we have a choice of Amazon, Apple, Disney and Netflix, as well as Sky and the public service broadcasting companies. The PSBs have a tremendous role in supporting the UK creative industries, and while some of the streaming services are now commissioning content in this country, because we are so good at it here, the PSBs nevertheless still represent the major commissioners of UK content. We have recently established the Public Service Broadcasting Advisory Panel to examine the way in which PSB needs to adapt to this new landscape, but I am absolutely clear that there is still a role for public service broadcasting, and we will be looking at the issues and challenges facing public service broadcasters, such as the issue of prominence that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham raised.

I would like to conclude by joining all those who have spoken in paying tribute to a show that has not only brought pleasure and entertainment to millions of people over the course of the last 60 years, not just in the UK but in many other countries around the world, but also played a vital role in raising awareness and affecting attitudes on so many important public issues. As several people have said, I look forward to at least another 60 years.

Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am not going to let the moment pass without saying a few words. This is rare and exceptional, but we are going to do it, and I am grateful to Mr Speaker for allowing me to chair this part of the Adjournment debate. Congratulations, Tracy, there is nobody more appropriate than you to have this particular debate. I have to say, as well, that I have seen many Ministers answer Adjournment debates with speeches prepared by their own Departments, but John, you wrote every word of that speech. I was looking at it, and that is your handwriting. I do not know if you could read it, but none the less it is your handwriting. You have grown up with the series, as we all have in this Chamber.

I know that Mr Speaker would have wanted, in normal circumstances, to have done a big reception at the end of this debate and had many of the stars past and present in his state rooms, but I am afraid covid has meant that that cannot be. We cannot even go into the snug in the Strangers Bar, because that is closed. None the less, I am sure that at some stage we will be able to properly mark the 60 years of “Coronation Street” in the Palace of Westminster. I know that that Chamber would have been full of some of the stars looking down before we went on to the reception.

I grew up in the 1960s watching “Coronation Street” on the huge TV we had in the corner—a small screen, but a big TV—all in black and white. I lay on the floor and listened to the haunting melody on a Monday and Wednesday. My father would close the shop early in order to watch “Coronation Street” because he loved it so much. Little did I think, watching that series, that I would be chairing a debate on “Coronation Street” in the House of Commons as Deputy Speaker.

I remember once meeting Jean Alexander, the great Hilda Ogden, and I could not get over how posh she sounded when she was not being Hilda Ogden. She was such a great actress, and that is part of the thing about “Coronation Street”: the great actors and actresses—yourself included, Tracy—who have performed in the amazing, longest running soap opera in the entire world.

In the 1960s, Bill Roache opened Swansea carnival. My mother dragged me down to the front to watch Bill in the back of an open-top car. I thought I was looking at a Hollywood actor—that is the height of the fame of people who starred in “Coronation Street” in those days. Little did I think then that I would represent the Ribble Valley, in the north-west of England, in Lancashire, or that in the village I bought a house in, Pendleton, I would be living opposite Vicky Entwistle—Janice Battersby—who is now a personal friend. I went to her wedding in Manchester, when she married Andy Chapman. Lots of stars of “Coronation Street” were there.

Bill Roache, too, has become a personal friend of mine over the years—a wonderful man. He has helped me out in a couple of general election campaigns, as he has a number of people who became MPs. Bill is the longest-serving actor in the longest-serving soap. What an amazing accolade! John, you mentioned Jane Luca, and she helped me to get on to the set of “Coronation Street” as well. We are all grateful for the fantastic facilitation that Jane has given many people over the period.

Another thing that has come out about “Coronation Street” is the humour—yes, the drama, and the fact that it treat difficult subjects, but it is one of the most humorous things on TV, more than some of the other soaps on at the moment, where you feel a bit depressed at the end. With “Coronation Street”, humour runs through the entire series, the entire 60 years of its production. For me, as far as broadcasting is concerned, you can stick your “Crowns”; I am going to stick with “Corrie”, as I have for the past 60 years, and as I am sure we all will in the future.

It is a real shame that at the end of this debate, we cannot have that haunting melody of “Coronation Street” playing, which I am sure we are all thinking about now. It is the thing that got us there to watch the show and, even at the point of highest drama, there would be silence in our living rooms as we listened to that closing melody. So thank you, “Corrie”, for everything that you have done over the past 60 years.

Question put and agreed to.

Oral Answers to Questions

John Whittingdale Excerpts
Thursday 5th November 2020

(11 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Alun Cairns Portrait Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con)
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What assessment he has made of the potential effectiveness of the proposal to ban the advertisement of products high in fat, sugar and salt online and on television. [908265]

John Whittingdale Portrait The Minister for Media and Data (Mr John Whittingdale)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

The Government published an impact assessment alongside the 2019 consultation on HFSS advertising that considered both the health benefits and the costs. We will publish the Government’s response to that consultation by the end of this year, and hold a short consultation as soon as possible on a total ban for advertising online.

Alun Cairns Portrait Alun Cairns
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

No one would question the Government’s wish to reduce childhood obesity, but influencing this is a hugely complicated task that the Government should take time over. The proposal to restrict advertising products that are high in fat, salt and sugar brings the risk of displacement. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that any ban will not come into force until all factors have been properly considered, and that any strategy regime will hold online platforms to the same restrictions as broadcasters, along with similar sanctions?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

My right hon. Friend himself is an advertisement for the benefits of healthy living, and he is absolutely right to draw attention to the risk that, by imposing measures in one area, one may simply displace advertising into another. That is why the Government have been absolutely plain that restrictions on post-watershed advertising on broadcasting will come into effect at the same time as a ban on HFSS advertising online.

Mohammad Yasin Portrait Mohammad Yasin (Bedford) (Lab)
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If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [908209]

Oral Answers to Questions

John Whittingdale Excerpts
Thursday 24th September 2020

(1 year, 1 month ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Gerald Jones Portrait Gerald Jones (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) (Lab)
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What plans the Government has to reintroduce the TV licence concession for people aged over 75. [906485]

John Whittingdale Portrait The Minister for Media and Data (Mr John Whittingdale)
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24 Sep 2020, 9:39 a.m.

The Government remain disappointed by the decision of the BBC to restrict the over-75 concession to those on pension credit. However, the responsibility for that was given to the BBC under the Digital Economy Act 2017, passed by Parliament, and it is a matter for the BBC.

Gerald Jones Portrait Gerald Jones
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24 Sep 2020, 9:40 a.m.

For many older and vulnerable residents, losing their free TV licence means losing not only entertainment and a source of news, but companionship, which is hugely important as we go into winter and many people across the country face restrictions on movement. Will the Minister do the right thing, stop hiding behind the BBC, take another look at this policy, stick to his manifesto commitment and keep free television licences for over-75s until 2022?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

The Conservative manifesto did say that we believed it should be funded by the BBC. Those who are on low incomes and are eligible for pension credit will continue to receive a free licence. I hope that all those who may be eligible make sure they receive pension credit. The Government continue to believe that the BBC needs to do more to support older people.

Laura Trott Portrait Laura Trott (Sevenoaks) (Con)
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What progress his Department has made on delivering support for the culture and heritage sector through the culture recovery fund. [906486]

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Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Portrait Mr Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (Slough) (Lab)
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What steps his Department is taking to support local, independent newspapers during the covid-19 outbreak. [906489]

John Whittingdale Portrait The Minister for Media and Data (Mr John Whittingdale)
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The Government recognise the vital importance of local and regional newspapers, particularly during this pandemic. That is why we designated journalists as key workers and ran a £35 million public information campaign to carry covid messaging in more than 600 titles.

Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Portrait Mr Dhesi
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

We in Slough are fortunate to have two brilliant local newspapers, the Slough Express and the Slough Observer, which play a vital role in our local democracy, ensuring that the good people of Slough are well informed with reliable and accurate news reporting, but, like many of their counterparts across our country, local journalism is under threat. Their trade body News Media Association has repeatedly called for business rates relief, but those calls seem to have fallen on deaf ears. The National Union of Journalists has proposed a detailed news recovery plan to ensure the survival of excellent journalism, which is there for all of us. Can the Minister advise us, before we lose even more valued local newspapers, when the Government will finally listen to and support this important sector?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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I have no doubt that the newspapers in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency are doing an excellent job, and I have had a number of conversations with the News Media Association and other publishing organisations. The Government have extended £1,500 business rates relief for local newspaper offices, but we will obviously continue to look at what additional measures we can take to support newspapers.

Edward Timpson Portrait Edward Timpson (Eddisbury) (Con)
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What progress his Department has made on improving mobile coverage in rural areas. [906492]

--- Later in debate ---
Grahame Morris Portrait Grahame Morris (Easington) (Lab)
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What recent discussions he has had with Ofcom on the BBC's compliance with its statutory duties on local and regional news and political coverage for the English regions. [906493]

John Whittingdale Portrait The Minister for Media and Data (Mr John Whittingdale)
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The BBC charter requires the BBC to serve audiences across all the UK nations and regions. How it does so is a matter for the BBC, but I share the concern about the recently announced cuts, and I welcome Ofcom’s intention to examine this.

Grahame Morris Portrait Grahame Morris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the Minister for that response, and I assume that he agrees that local and regional news coverage and political coverage are a vital aspect of the BBC’s public sector obligation. My concern—this has been raised by the National Union of Journalists—is that the number of staff who currently work on the award-winning investigative programme “Inside Out” will be put at risk of redundancy if the BBC reduces the number of regional production centres from 11 to six. I am pleased by what the Minister said, but is he asking Ofcom to investigate the BBC’s compliance with the public sector broadcaster obligation?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman that local and regional news coverage by the BBC is one of the core public purposes of the BBC. I have spoken to the new director-general, and I am pleased that he remains absolutely committed to that. Whether the recent cuts reduce the ability of the BBC to carry out that obligation is a matter that Ofcom is looking at, and it decided to do that without our having even spoken to it.

Alex Davies-Jones Portrait Alex Davies-Jones (Pontypridd) (Lab)
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What steps he has taken to ensure parity in the application of covid-19 restrictions to sports and music groups. [906497]

BBC

John Whittingdale Excerpts
Tuesday 21st July 2020

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Daisy Cooper Portrait Daisy Cooper (St Albans) (LD) (Urgent Question)
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To ask the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport if he will make a statement on changes to the licence fee exemptions, programming and job losses at the BBC.

John Whittingdale Portrait The Minister for Media and Data (Mr John Whittingdale)
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7 Jul 2020, 10:30 a.m.

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper) on obtaining this urgent question and demonstrating that persistence pays off.

The BBC has for decades played a vital role in this country’s cultural and civic life, and that has never been more true than during the last few months. During an unprecedented global crisis, it has helped to counter disinformation and share factual information about the coronavirus pandemic, while reinforcing important public health messaging. It has been a constant source of entertainment. It has helped to fundraise for charities through “The Big Night In”, which the Government match funded pound for pound, and it has helped countless families across the UK to educate their children from home through services such as BBC Bitesize.

The BBC has also been a source of comfort to many during this pandemic, and none more so, perhaps, than those elderly citizens who have been forced to shield and stay at home and who are sadly most at risk of experiencing loneliness and isolation as they do so. That is why we welcomed the BBC’s initial decision at the beginning of the lockdown to continue to grant the licence fee concession to the over-75s, and it is why we were deeply disappointed when the BBC board announced earlier this month that it would be ending that concession from 1 August. As a result, four out of five of those previously eligible for a free TV licence will now need to pay. That is a decision for the BBC, but the Government regret the approach that it has taken.

In the 2015 funding settlement—a settlement that was widely considered to be a generous one and which the director-general said was a strong deal for the BBC—we agreed with the BBC that responsibility for the over-75s concession would transfer to it in June 2020. The BBC agreed to have both the policy decision and the funding responsibility. That reform was subject to public discussion and debated extensively during the passage of the Digital Economy Act 2017. During those discussions and the passage of that legislation, Parliament agreed that the future of the over-75 concession and how and when it would be implemented was entirely a matter for the BBC.

The Government’s view is that the BBC should be doing more, given the generous settlement that it received. During the 2015 settlement, we gave the BBC a number of things in return for taking on this responsibility. We closed the iPlayer loophole. We committed to increasing the licence fee in line with inflation, and we reduced a number of other BBC spending commitments. To help with financial planning, we agreed to provide phased transitional funding over two years to gradually introduce the cost to the BBC.

It is now essential that the BBC, having taken the decision to end the concession, gets the implementation of the change right and is not heavy-handed in its approach. While lockdown may be easing, older people across the country still face many challenges and still rely on their TV as much as they did a few weeks ago. The BBC can and should therefore do more to support older people, and it should look urgently at how it can use its substantial licence fee income to support older people and deliver for UK audiences of all ages.

As the national broadcaster, the BBC has a duty to represent all of the nation—both its youngest and oldest citizens, no matter where they live—and I am aware that many people have expressed concerns about cuts to regional programming as well as the BBC’s recent announcement of staffing reductions. Let me be clear that both operational and editorial decisions are a matter for the BBC. It is an independent body and the Government rightly have no say over the day-to-day decisions that it makes on programming, staffing or the administration of the licence fee, but as I have said, including during a recent Adjournment debate, the Government believe that the BBC must represent all of Britain. We set clear targets for news and current affairs and the need to represent all parts of the UK and the charter as part of the BBC’s mission and public purposes. It is for the BBC to meet these and Ofcom to hold it to account on doing so. That means engaging and reporting on local issues across our diverse communities, not just reflecting the views of the metropolitan bubbles of London and Manchester.

While the BBC remains operationally and editorially independent from the Government, we will continue to push it on these issues so that we can ensure that the BBC remains closer to the communities that it serves.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

21 Jul 2020, 12:04 a.m.

I just say to the Minister that that should have been three minutes, and he has taken five.

Daisy Cooper Portrait Daisy Cooper
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

21 Jul 2020, 12:40 p.m.

The BBC licence fee exists to give the BBC protection from political interference. The BBC should not be making decisions on welfare. That is the role of the Government. Last year, the BBC chairman said that

“the licence fee is at the heart of what we do. It establishes a direct relationship between us and the public and makes absolutely clear that our job is to serve them”—

and yet here we are.

From 1 August, the BBC will fund free licences only for people over 75 who receive pension credit, but two-fifths of people who are entitled to the benefit—about 1.2 million pensioners—are not receiving it. Some do not know how to claim, many struggle to apply and others feel embarrassed about requiring help. Is the BBC really to become a de facto arm of the Department for Work and Pensions?

Let us be absolutely clear about how we have ended up here. It was the Conservative Government who took the decision in 2015 to stop funding for free licences, and it was the Conservative Government who forced responsibility on to the BBC board to make the decision on the future of the concession. The Government should never have asked the BBC to take that on, and the BBC should never have accepted it. Continuing with the licence fee scheme for the over-75s would have cost £745 million—a fifth of the BBC’s budget. To meet that cost without Government funding, the BBC would have had to close all of the following: BBC 2, BBC 4, the BBC News channel, BBC Scotland, Radio 5 live and local radio stations, as well as many other cuts and reductions. As it happens, the means-tested scheme will still cost the BBC about £250 million, and to help meet that cost it has recently announced hundreds of job losses and programming cuts.

The BBC has proved invaluable to the British public during the covid lockdown through its trusted news, entertainment and home schooling resources. Does the Minister agree? Age UK says that it firmly believes it is the Government’s responsibility to look after vulnerable older people, not the BBC’s. Age UK also thinks the Government should take back responsibility for a benefit that was introduced to tackle pensioner poverty. Will he do that? The Conservative Government have been responsible for these secret deals with the BBC that have significantly diminished its ability to serve the British public, so when the licence fee negotiations start in earnest next year, will he commit to a wholly transparent process involving Ofcom?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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21 Jul 2020, 12:40 p.m.

The decisions taken at the time of the licence fee settlement in 2015 were the result of lengthy negotiations with the BBC, in which it received a number of concessions that it strongly asked for. In return for those, it agreed that it would take on responsibility for the maintenance of the over-75s free TV licence concession. It was up to the BBC how it decided to take that forward. A number of options were suggested and consulted on by the BBC. The Government were disappointed, as I say, that it decided to remove the concession completely. There were a number of other ways it could have addressed it that would have saved the BBC money but would have at least maintained some help for those aged over 75. But, as I said, that was a matter for the BBC. Obviously, we will continue to discuss it with the BBC. In particular, we will be having discussions over the next licence fee settlement in 2022. We will ensure that there is an opportunity for Ofcom, and others, to have an input into that, but that is still some way off. In the meantime, as somebody who was responsible for those negotiations, I believed the licence fee settlement was a good outcome. The BBC made public the fact that it thought it was a good outcome, too.

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds (East Hampshire) (Con)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

This crisis has shown that local programming is more important than ever, both for essential information and for closeness of community. Is it not now vital that quality TV and radio at a local level remains at the heart of BBC output, including through programmes such as the 6.30 regional news, “Politics South” and “Inside Out”, in all regions?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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21 Jul 2020, 12:40 p.m.

I agree with my right hon. Friend. The charter of the BBC makes it plain, as one of the five public purposes, that it is the responsibility of the BBC to reflect, represent and serve the diverse community of the UK’s nations and regions. Ofcom, as he knows, lays down a number of requirements on the BBC and, indeed, on other public service broadcasters, as to how it does that. It is up to the BBC. I have made it clear before, and I do so again today, that I regard the BBC’s news and current affairs reporting of events taking place outside London and in the regions as an absolutely central part of the BBC’s purpose. I very much hope that it will continue to bear that in mind.

Christian Matheson Portrait Christian Matheson (City of Chester) (Lab)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I congratulate the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper) on securing this urgent question, which goes to the heart of Members’ concerns about cuts to BBC funding, and the breaking of a promise to millions of pensioners and their families. This issue goes back to the charter and licence fee settlement that was made with the Conservative Government in 2015, when the Government made the BBC an offer it could not refuse: “Take on responsibility for paying the licence for the over-75s, or we will slash funding even further and consider removing the licence fee altogether.”

Since then, in this licence period alone, the BBC has lost £800 million in funding, even before bearing the cost of licences for the over -75s. Members may ask why the BBC accepted the settlement. Is it merely a coincidence that the then chair of the BBC Trust, Rona Fairhead, was later elevated to a peerage as the noble Baroness Fairhead, and took the Conservative Whip a short time later?

The Conservatives made a manifesto promise to maintain the licence for the over-75s. They broke it. Instead, they passed responsibility to the BBC, knowing that it would never be able to afford that responsibility. Since then, they have tried to blame the BBC at every turn, for every cut of every service, and for every redundancy. No doubt they will try to blame the BBC when bills start landing on pensioners’ doorsteps in August and September.

The Conservative Government themselves were party to this deal, so does the Minister not accept that the Government should own some of the blame? Can the Minister tell the House, as the hon. Lady asked, why the BBC should be responsible for implementing the Government’s social policy?

Cuts to the BBC, as everyone in this Chamber knows, are not merely about spending; they are about undermining the corporation’s independence. The Conservative Government are, at best, relaxed about reducing the BBC’s budget, because it is the only lever they have to control the BBC’s capacity to ask tough questions on behalf of the British people.

Ministers knew that making the BBC shoulder that responsibility in full would lead to cuts equivalent to the closures of BBC2, BBC4, the news channel, the Scotland channel, Radio 5 live and Sports Extra, and a number of local stations. Indeed, the cuts to BBC news reporting and all the redundancies in local and national news, at a time of national crisis, when the BBC is more valued and essential than ever, are a direct result of the Government’s failure to maintain their election promises.

The Minister will have seen evidence from Age UK, detailing how millions of pensioners have relied on their televisions for company, especially during the pandemic. What advice would he give to a pensioner who will face the heart-breaking choice in the coming months between turning off their TV for good, or forgoing other basics such as food or heating? That is the reality of the Government’s broken promise to 4 million pensioner households.

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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I remind the hon. Gentleman that at the time of the licence fee settlement in 2015, the Government were still having to put right the mess that they had inherited, due to the financial profligacy of the previous Labour Government. Everybody had to play a part in that, and the BBC was included. It was a tough negotiation. I call tell the hon. Gentleman— I was part of the negotiations—that Baroness Fairhead strongly argued the case for the BBC, and the outcome was satisfactory to the BBC and the Government, as was made clear by the BBC at that time. The manifesto commitment to maintaining the licence fee during the 2015 Parliament was maintained, which is why the exemption is only now being removed in 2020.

Any pensioner on a low income will continue to get a free TV licence if they are in receipt of pension credit. Age UK has rightly drawn attention to the fact that quite a number of pensioners do not receive pension credit, even though they are entitled to do so, and one of the consequences of this move, which the Government would welcome, might be an increase in the take-up of pension credit.

Huw Merriman Portrait Huw Merriman (Bexhill and Battle) (Con)
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I welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box. He has always spoken sensitively about this subject and has great experience. He will be aware that the BBC received a generous settlement of about £200 million, whereas the concession for pension credits will cost £250 million, and to keep things as they are would cost £750 million, so we are well aware that the BBC was not fully funded. Returning to regional news, the concerns that I and many Members have is that many of our constituents rely on regional news to deliver locally for them, and 450 out of 3,000 jobs are at risk of being lost. Does the Minister agree that if the BBC wants to win friends in this place, it should look after the regions?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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I thank my hon. Friend. He is right about the cost of maintaining free TV licences for all over-75s, which is already approaching £750 million and would go on rising. Any Government—and, indeed, the corporation—were going to have to consider that. On his point about regional programming, as we made clear in the recent debate held by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), it is a matter for the BBC, but regional programming is essential. I am pleased that some of the fears expressed about cuts to regional political and current affairs coverage did not materialise, but I am still concerned at the level of cuts that are taking place, and we will be watching carefully to ensure that the BBC continues to fulfil its obligations on regional coverage.

John Nicolson Portrait John Nicolson (Ochil and South Perthshire) (SNP) [V]
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Tory Ministers’ feigned shock at BBC job cuts and at old people being pursued for TV licence payments is nothing but humbug. Everyone knew that this would be the result of the last charter deal, cooked up by the Government and BBC director-general Tony Hall. The Government demanded that free TV licences for the over-75s—which should be a social provision—be funded by the BBC, and the BBC was unwise enough to knuckle under and accept. The BBC could not afford it, and I warned at the time that it would lead to swingeing BBC job losses and pensioners being pursued through the courts for licence payments—a double whammy of cruelty, especially during covid. Lord Hall is off to another lavishly paid job, but pensioners across the country will have to find the cash to pay for licences they cannot afford, while hundreds of staff at the BBC now face redundancy as a direct result of this dreadful Tory deal. The Government need to take back control of pensioner licence provision. Will they do so?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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First, there were a number of options available to the BBC for how to reduce the costs of the over-75s exemption. The BBC chose to abolish it in its entirety, but there were options, including providing it at a later age, reducing it to a proportion of the licence fee or restricting it to households that only contained over-75-year-olds. It has always seemed to me extraordinary that a banker at Goldman Sachs who happens to have his grandmother living in his home can claim a free TV licence. There were a number of options, and I personally regret that the BBC chose to go ahead with the total abolition. The hon. Gentleman talked about hard-up pensioners. Pensioners on low incomes will continue to receive a free TV licence if they are in receipt of pension credit, so those who are most likely to be unable to afford it will not be required to pay.

Tom Hunt Portrait Tom Hunt (Ipswich) (Con)
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Last month, senior executives at the BBC took it upon themselves to remove episodes of “Little Britain” and other comedies from its iPlayer platform because of concerns that some characters might now be considered to be offensive. Does my right hon. Friend understand the anger of fans of these programmes that executives at their state broadcaster whose salaries they pay have made this censorious decision and effectively made a value judgment about them for continuing to enjoy those programmes?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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That is a matter for the BBC, obviously, but I share my hon. Friend’s surprise that the BBC decided that “Little Britain” was so unacceptable. Certain programmes that were extremely popular in the ’60s, for instance, would now be regarded as wholly unacceptable, which not just the BBC but all of us need to remain sensitive to, but there is a risk that removing certain programming that is still widely enjoyed—it was even suggested to me at one stage that “Fawlty Towers” might be removed because it gave offence to people—is taking political correctness too far.

Florence Eshalomi Portrait Florence Eshalomi (Vauxhall) (Lab/Co-op) [V]
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The announcement of further job cuts at the BBC is yet another blow for public service broadcasting. There are many BBC freelance workers in Vauxhall with jobs on important TV and radio shows. Some of them have had long-term contracts with the BBC for many years, and they are taxpayers and licence fee payers, but they have not benefited from the same support that other taxpayers have rightly received from the Government, simply because of the type of contract they are on. As a result, many are contemplating leaving the media industry altogether, which in my view is a tragic loss of talent and experience. Given the immense challenges these freelancers face, will the Minister make representations to the Chancellor and persuade him to fill the gaps and end the one-size-fits-all approach to withdrawing these schemes?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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In the case of the BBC, the majority of its staff are of course paid with public money and therefore were not eligible for furlough, but there are some BBC employees who work for the commercial arm, some of whom were furloughed, and, as the hon. Lady says, there are a number of freelancers. The Government have sought to provide support to freelancers through the self-employment income support scheme, and of course for those who fall outside that there is the availability of universal credit. Nevertheless, I am aware that there are a number of freelance workers, not just for the BBC but across the media, who are finding it difficult, and of course we continue to look to see what help can be given to them.

Felicity Buchan Portrait Felicity Buchan (Kensington) (Con)
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Does my right hon. Friend agree that the BBC needs to look urgently at how it can use its substantial licence fee income to support older people and to deliver for audiences of all age groups?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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I very much agree with my hon. Friend. It is important to bear in mind that although the BBC is under financial pressure like many other organisations, it benefits from the licence fee and other income to the tune of around £5 billion. It is certainly the case that there are ways of achieving efficiencies and savings in the spending of that budget, which would perhaps have meant that some of the more difficult decisions, such as the removal of free licences for the over-75s, could at least have been mitigated.

Navendu Mishra Portrait Navendu Mishra (Stockport) (Lab)
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21 Jul 2020, 12:03 a.m.

Research by the Library has revealed that more than 3,000 households in my constituency may lose access to their free TV licence as a result of the Government’s deal with the BBC. The charity Age UK described axing the free TV licence as

“a kick in the teeth for millions of over 75s who have had