HC Deb 29 March 1999 vol 328 cc716-8
5. Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)

If he will make a statement on the renewal of the BBC charter. [77373]

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Chris Smith)

The BBC charter was renewed in 1996 to run for 10 years. It will next be reviewed in the run-up to 2006.

Mr. Baker

Will the Secretary of State try to ensure that the BBC spends a greater proportion of licence payers' money on programme making? Is he aware that the BBC is awash with—indeed, submerged in—management strategies, management consultants and mission statements, and that the situation has reached such a point of absurdity that Broadcasting house has no broadcasters in it, only managers? Will he ensure that licence payers get better value for money by having more spent on programmes and journalists and less on gobbledegook managers?

Mr. Smith

I have much sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's point. It is entirely a matter for the governors to allocate the BBC's resources, and it is very important that the Government do not intervene in those decisions; but it is also important to ensure, as hon. Members of all parties would wish, that the BBC devotes as much of its resources as possible to making good programmes for its viewers and listeners.

Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne)

Since the BBC is the prime cultural institution in the country, will my right hon. Friend do all that he can to promote its cause up to and beyond the renewal of the charter?

Mr. Smith

I will certainly seek to do that. The BBC is our premier public service broadcaster, and I was delighted to read a week ago of the comments made by Mr. Alan Yentob, who seized strongly on the point that the BBC's pre-eminent task is to act as a benchmark of quality in the broadcasting environment.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

If the BBC is indeed a benchmark of quality, is the Secretary of State not concerned about declining standards in both television and radio? What does he think about the recent announcement that the licence fee is to be increased to more than £100? Is that not too much for, for example, the elderly, the disabled and the housebound? Would not some of the money be better used in finding rebates for them?

Mr. Smith

We are, of course, following the five-year programme of licence fee settlements put in place by the Conservative Government. We felt that it was correct to follow that prospectus, because all the BBC's plans had been based on it. It is, however, important to bear in mind the affordability of the licence fee, especially for those who are not particularly well off. The review panel that I established to report to me in July on the licence fee is considering that issue.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

Has my right hon. Friend seen last week's BBC report, showing that 3 million fewer people now listen to parliamentary coverage because of the transfer of "Yesterday in Parliament" to long wave and the dumping of "The Week in Westminster" in a graveyard slot? Is he aware that, according to the same report, the "Today" programme has not gained a single new listener between 8.30 and 9 o'clock? Does that not show that the BBC's decision to move parliamentary coverage out of the mainstream was a complete disaster? It was a disgrace when it was made last year, and it should be reversed. There has been a general drop in BBC listening and viewing figures. which are now at 30 per cent. To what percentage of the national audience does the BBC have to drop before the licence fee itself is called into question?

Mr. Smith

The BBC has indeed published its study of what happened following the changes to "Yesterday in Parliament". I know that it is of great concern to many hon. Members, and indeed to you, Madam Speaker. The report is out for consultation, and the closing date for responses is Friday 30 April. I very much hope that hon. Members of all parties will express their views forthrightly to the BBC.

BBC1 and BBC2 between them have not 30 per cent., but 40 per cent. of the national viewing figures. That is a healthy and substantial segment of the viewing population. The important factor to sit alongside that is the reach of BBC programming, which is well over 90 per cent. in an average week.

Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk)

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that a subsidy of £2 billion from the licence fee payer means that the BBC has a clear obligation to protect the public interest? I echo the comments by the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane); in that regard, does the Secretary of State share my concern that, since the Radio 4 changes a year ago, "The Week in Westminster" audience has dropped 65 per cent. and the "Yesterday in Parliament" audience has fallen by fully 73 per cent? Will he remind the director-general of the corporation's clear public service responsibility to react to those figures?

Mr. Smith

I will remind the BBC, the governors and the director-general of their duty as a public service broadcaster not only to entertain, but to educate and inform. My personal view is that accurate and full coverage of what happens in Parliament is part of that duty, and I am sure that that is a point that many hon. Members will wish to make. However, it is not, and should not be, up to the Government to make a Government view known to the BBC about its programming decisions: it is up to individual Members of Parliament to do so. I shall do so, and I am sure that many colleagues will also do that.