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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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 McVay, the chief executive of the Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television, has described Channel 4 as
“a catalyst for generations of entrepreneurs”,
“plays a critical role in the UK’s broadcasting ecology”,
“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?
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?
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?
“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”—
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?
What plans his Department has to (a) promote and (b) encourage people to watch the Paralympic Games in summer 2021. (902120)
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
That this House has considered World Press Freedom Day 2021.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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?
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?
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?
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”—
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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.
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?
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?
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?
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.
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?
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?
What recent steps his Department has taken to tackle the proliferation of (a) misinformation and (b) disinformation online. (910124)
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.
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.
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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.
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?
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?
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?
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?
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