John Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

I welcome the publication of both the draft charter and now the agreement. This is the culmination of a process that started a year ago with the publication of the consultation paper on the future of the BBC. As both Front-Bench spokespeople have mentioned, that produced a very wide-ranging and voluminous response, ranging from the 192,000 people who responded by email or letter to a number of luminaries of the creative industries who wrote to defend the BBC against the threat that they saw, but that I believe, as my hon. Friend Nigel Huddleston pointed out, never really existed.

Karen Bradley The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport 

I just want to put on record my thanks for the amazing work that my right hon. Friend did as Secretary of State. It was a joy to come into the job and find such comprehensive and technically excellent work done on the charter, which really puts the BBC on an excellent footing. I want to thank my right hon. Friend for that.

John Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon 

I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend. It is gratifying, and it is a positive sign, that the charter and the agreement essentially reflect the contents of the White Paper, which was the result of a great deal of work. At the time, it was very much welcomed by the BBC as putting it on a sound footing for the future. I believe that that is the case and that the charter and the agreement are, if anything, a bit tougher on the BBC than the White Paper was. The changes made to the charter and agreement go further—in ways that I welcome. Indeed, I might have recommended myself the changes to the salaries publication regime, whereby the Government have decided that it is right to publish the salaries of not only those earning over £450,000, but over £150,000.

The issues that attracted perhaps most comment when the White Paper came out—they have featured in the debate we have had thus far—are the independence and the governance structure of the BBC. The governance structure was widely recognised by Members of all parties as having failed. The BBC Trust had virtually no defenders. When I chaired the Select Committee, we produced a robust report, saying that the trust model did not work. The Lords Communications Committee also produced a report making precisely the same point. The idea that the BBC should have a management executive and then this arm’s length body, which was part of the BBC but not in the BBC, was simply a recipe for confusion, leading to a succession of problems, including severance payments, the appointment and then departure of the director-general within a space of 54 days and huge wastes of money such as the digital media initiative, which cost the licence fee payer over £100 million.

We asked David Clementi to come up with a recommendation for a new governance structure, and he came back with the one that most people had always felt was the right solution—a strong unitary board with external governance from Ofcom. Then the debate was about the appointments made to that management board—the unitary board—and whether the Government should have a role in it.

Helen Goodman reads some sinister meaning into paragraph 4 of the agreement, where it says that the independence of the BBC’s appointments is important, but nevertheless has to take account of external factors. Let me explain that that particular paragraph is word-for-word identical to the paragraph in the agreement published in 2006, when the Labour Government were in office. It simply translates the same provision from 2006 into the new agreement. So if there was a sinister purpose, it was the creation of the hon. Lady’s party, not that of the present Government.

There was then a debate about the fact that, obviously, the unitary board was a more powerful and directly responsible body than the trust. It was recognised, I think, that it was right for the appointment of the chairman to remain a Government appointment, although my own view was that because the board was such a new creation there should be an open competition, and that was the view that the new Secretary of State and the new Prime Minister subsequently reached following the publication of a report by the Select Committee. I think that that was probably the right decision.

The Government appoint the four independent directors, each of whom will represent or speak for one of the nations of the United Kingdom, and, as has been pointed out, the BBC will appoint five non-executive directors. Even the Government’s appointments will, however, be made through the public appointments process. As I have said, they will not be in the majority. Perhaps most crucially of all, the unitary board will not have a role in editorial decision-making, although it will have a role in reaching judgments about complaints post-transmission. That crucial safeguard will ensure that those people cannot be accused of political interference.

I find it extraordinary, I must say, that all the people who suggested that the creation of the board somehow constituted a threat to the independence of the BBC—although, as was pointed out, it would have no involvement in editorial decision-making—have been strangely silent about what strikes me as a more dangerous precedent: the appointment of James Purnell as director of radio and education. When the BBC appointed James Purnell as director of strategy in 2013, just three years after he ceased to be a Labour Member of Parliament and about five years after he ceased to be Secretary of State, I questioned the director-general about the appointment in the Select Committee. I asked him whether he could think of any precedent for the assuming of a management role in the BBC by someone who was not just politically affiliated, but had been a very active party politician. He could not do so, but he did say this to the Select Committee:

“I think the key thing is—James’s job of course is not editorial”.

James Purnell has now become director of radio and education. As director of radio, he has overall responsibility for the output of a large amount of BBC content, and it is impossible to say that he has no involvement in editorial decisions. Indeed, we are told that he has been groomed as a potential candidate for the job of director-general, a position which, of course, is also that of chief editor of the BBC.

I like James Purnell. We get on well, we have robust discussions, and we agree about quite a lot. I have absolutely no doubt that James Purnell is absolutely committed to the impartiality of the BBC, just as I am; I merely suggest that if I, as a former Secretary of State, were to be invited, in a few years’ time, to take on a management role in the BBC—[Hon. Members: “I’d back you!”] I suspect that, despite the support that I might enjoy from some on my own side, it would give rise to howls of outrage, and I do not think it would be appropriate. This is not to criticise James Purnell, but his appointment does establish a very dangerous precedent, which is far more of a direct threat to independence than the appointment of the non-executive, independent directors.

Helen Goodman Labour, Bishop Auckland 

The right hon. Gentleman is making a fair point. What it all goes to show is that more appointments of this kind should be made through independent processes, and that is precisely our criticism of the new board structure. The right hon. Gentleman has just given another example in which the independence comes into doubt.

John Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon 

The hon. Lady has made an interesting point. The Government have no involvement in the appointment of management executives in the BBC, and—this is another issue—we understand that, just as there was no competition when James Purnell was appointed director of strategy, there was no advertisement or external competition for this particular post. However, that is a matter for the BBC. It is something that the Select Committee has previously questioned quite vigorously, and although I am no longer a member of the Select Committee, my successors may well wish to take it up with the director-general in the future. I hope that they will.

David Lammy Labour, Tottenham 

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that James Purnell had a career in the media before becoming a Member of Parliament—he was a special adviser at No. 10 in that area—and that there is a general view that he has done a very good job? He is a good friend of mine, but is not the real purpose of advertising to ensure that we do not just get white men who are hand-picked for such jobs? That must be the criticism, rather than, necessarily, James Purnell’s own background and the expertise that he clearly possesses.

John Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon 

I am not sure that the fact that James Purnell was a member of Tony Blair’s policy unit is hugely reassuring to me. As for the right hon. Gentleman’s point about the need for diversity, it has already been covered in the debate, and I absolutely sign up to it. The right hon. Gentleman has acknowledged and welcomed the fact that we have included it in the BBC’s public purposes for the first time. I think that the BBC is committed to trying to increase diversity, but, as has already been said, there is more to be done.

Damian Collins Conservative, Folkestone and Hythe 

The appointment of James Purnell to his new role is important not just in relation to James Purnell himself, but in relation to the process. This is one of the most senior positions in the BBC, and there is no internal or external advertising of that position. There is a great deal of criticism of the way in which BBC executives are appointed and how much they are paid, and an element of transparency and competition is important in that context.

John Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon 

I entirely agree that that is an important issue, but I think that the issue of the political precedent is, if anything, even more important. People complained vigorously about the suggestion that the Government might appoint, as non-executive independent directors, people who might be political friends. That caused howls. This, however, is not an independent position. It is not a non-editorial position. It is a position within the management executive which involves responsibility for editorial content. Obviously, it is a much more directly responsible position, and it is therefore even more important that it should be politically independent.

John Nicolson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport) 

This, of course, makes it all the more remarkable that when the right hon. Gentleman was Secretary of State, Rona Fairhead was appointed chair of the new BBC board by the Prime Minister with—as we subsequently discovered—absolutely no competition, and behind closed doors.

John Whittingdale John Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon 

She was originally appointed following a very open and widespread competition when she became chairman of the BBC Trust. Obviously that post was advertised, there were a number of candidates, and the process was subject to the full public appointments procedure. The fact that the then Prime Minister and I told the House that it was felt that she could serve during the transition following a transfer to the new position is a matter of public record. However, as I said earlier, I think that the later decision that it would be better to put the post out to open competition was the correct one.

Maria Eagle Labour, Garston and Halewood 

The BBC may or may not have made a mistake in the way in which it appointed a particular individual—James Purnell, about whom the right hon. Gentleman has been talking—but it made that decision as an independent organisation. Is not the difficulty that we face, and the issue of political interference, caused by the fact that we in this place seek to control? When the right hon. Gentleman was Secretary of State, it was argued that the appointment of a majority of board members by the Government of the day was a matter of concern, because it was felt that there would be a route for political interference from this place and from the Government, rather than the BBC’s making its own mistakes—or not; as it may or may not do.

John Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon 

That was obviously a separate debate. I understand the concern expressed by the hon. Lady, but I do not agree with her. Even under the original suggestion, the BBC would have had a majority when the non-executive and executive board members were taken together. Moreover, as I sought to point out, the non-executive members will have been through the public appointments process. They will have had to demonstrate their competence and qualifications for the role, which most people regard as a pretty good safeguard. Of course, the BBC Trust, which the board replaces, was wholly appointed by the Government, so this is quite a big shift.

Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Education) 

Apart from the political connotations of the appointment, does the right hon. Gentleman not find it even more bizarre that, because of either the perceived inexperience of the appointee or other internal factors, the BBC has had to create another management post to support Mr Purnell, with a salary of more than the Prime Minister’s, at a time when it says it has no money?

John Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon 

Again, the hon. Gentleman raises some valid points. There are a number of curiosities about this appointment. As I indicated earlier, I am sure the Select Committee will want to think about some of them when the director-general next appears before it.

I want to touch on a couple of other aspects of the agreement and charter, which, as I have said, I very much welcome. The introduction of distinctiveness as a key requirement for the BBC is important. It is right that an organisation that enjoys £4 billion of public money should not be competing with the independent sector, and that it should look different from the commercial sector in television and, just as importantly, in radio. I hope that putting that in and then having Ofcom adjudicate it will make a difference.

Andrew Bingham Conservative, High Peak 

I agree on the distinctiveness point, because the BBC receives this public money, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the distinctiveness should go across all the channels, as opposed to the BBC just putting some distinctive programmes on certain niche channels? It should be spread across the whole range of the BBC, not just concentrated on a small element of it, leaving the major channels free not to be as distinctive as arguably they should be.

John Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon 

I agree, and it will ultimately be for Ofcom to decide whether the BBC is meeting that requirement. I do not think it should be applied to every individual programme, but each channel should be able to demonstrate that it is markedly different from an equivalent commercial channel. That should apply to radio as well as the mainstream TV channels. That is a significant change.

Jim Cunningham Labour, Coventry South 

When the right hon. Gentleman was Secretary of State, did he ever look into the disproportionate amount of money distributed to the regions in comparison with London? I am sure the right hon. Gentleman knows that some of the regions are very concerned about that.

John Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon 

I understand that, and there are particular regions—and indeed nations—that feel underserved and hard-done-by. In my view, the BBC made a good move in transferring a lot of its production and facilities to Salford—I was in favour of the establishment of the Media City in Salford—but that was not sufficient for the BBC to then sit back and say, “Right, we’ve done our bit for the English regions; we don’t have to worry any longer.” The west midlands has felt underserved, as has been debated in this House, and I have no doubt that John Nicolson, speaking for the Scottish National party, will talk about the provision of the service, and indeed employment and production, in Scotland. This is a live issue, and I believe the BBC needs to do more.

I want to touch briefly on two particular policy developments that I promoted and remain keen on. The first is the public service content fund. The hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) talked about the underspend on the provision for broadband and what will happen to it. I hope it will go to establish the public service content fund, which will provide programming in areas that are currently underserved, of which children’s television is certainly an example. It will be administered outside the BBC.

Tom Watson Deputy Leader of the Opposition and Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport 

Does the right hon. Gentleman not think that there may be a chance with that development of an onerous bureaucracy being created that may cost the licence payer more, and may mean that the expertise in commissioning content is diminished?

John Whittingdale John Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon 

I very much hope that there will not be additional bureaucracy. The precise way of administering it will need to be worked out. There is a valuable consequence of this: this is a very small pot of money, but it will mean that there is an alternative route—other than the BBC—for the obtaining of funding from the public purse for public service content. At present, the BBC has a monopoly in commissioning content with public money. That is in large part necessary, but it is worth exploring this alternative route.

Tom Watson Deputy Leader of the Opposition and Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport 

My memory is not great and I have only been reading into the brief for 10 days, but I think that the figure is about £60 million. Does the right hon. Gentleman envisage that being an ongoing demand on the BBC, or will it be a one-off pot as a result of the underspend?

John Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon 

Where the money is coming from has been identified: it is coming from the underspend, as the hon. Gentleman flagged up in his remarks, and that is obviously over a set period; it is not ongoing. We will judge the success of it. It will be to some extent for the BBC to decide whether it is a success, and also for the Government to decide, but I am content that, certainly for the next three years, it is in place.

The other innovation I am very committed to, and to which the director-general has given a lot of support, is the provision for the BBC to support local media through the establishment of local news reporting and the buying-in of content. The purpose of that is first to address an extremely serious issue: the decline of local media and the consequences of that for local accountability and democracy. This alone is not going to solve that as it is a very big issue, but it is a recognition that the BBC has taken content from local newspapers often without even attributing it to the local paper, let alone giving any money for it. This will ensure that local newspapers continue to cover local institutions—local councils, courts proceedings and so forth, which are extremely important for the functioning of local democracy. It seems to me a legitimate use of the licence fee to do this and I welcome the support the BBC has given to the move. It is important that the BBC should not directly employ these people: if it turned out that a local newspaper could reduce their employment even more because the BBC would pick up and employ those people, it would further harm local media rather than helping. The important thing is that, through a tendering process, the BBC establishes a relationship in each area with a local media organisation—it does not need to be a newspaper; it could be a radio or television station—and supports it in ensuring that there is proper coverage of local political issues. That is new, and I hope it will help to sustain local media and local democracy in this country.

Finally, I want to touch on the future of the licence fee. I think I have been quoted in the past as saying that the licence fee was worse than the poll tax. When I said that, it was simply an observation that the licence fee is a flat-rate charge payable by every household and, unlike the community charge, no help is available even for those on very low incomes. It was simply an observation of that. The licence fee has many flaws—it is regressive, it is hard to collect, and there is the iPlayer loophole enabling people to evade it, which we are now closing—but I think the Government are right that for this charter period the licence fee should continue. The speed of change in the way that people receive television is very fast and there may well come a moment when the technology has advanced so that the old argument that everybody consumes the BBC in one form or another is no longer true. Also, if television is distributed via the internet, which is coming and I believe will eventually be the universal method of distribution, that will be the moment when it is possible to experiment with things like conditional access subscriptions. I therefore welcome the fact that the BBC has agreed to put a small toe into the water and use the iPlayer perhaps to supply some additional content on a voluntary subscription basis. That is a small step, but it will shed light on our potentially one day moving towards a voluntary system of subscription to the BBC. The technology does not permit that now, and I do not think it is appropriate now, but I welcome the fact that the BBC has agreed to make that first small step.

I conclude by saying once again that I believe the draft agreement and charter represent a sound foundation for the future of the BBC. I would like to take some small credit, despite all those who told me I was hell-bent on destruction. That was not the case, and I hope this proves it.

John Nicolson John Nicolson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

I beg to move the amendment in the name of my right hon. and hon. Friends.

The BBC is one of the most important and influential cultural, social, economic and democratic institutions in our country, and I welcome this opportunity to debate its future further. I think we all agree on many things, including how important the BBC is, but there is also significant agreement on the areas in which we criticise it.

The new shadow Secretary of State, Mr Watson, illustrated very effectively how worried many of us are about the lack of diversity in the organisation, and the debate initiated by Mr Lammy on diversity in the BBC won widespread agreement throughout the House. There is a shocking shortage of senior black and minority figures at the very top of the BBC. We all believe that the BBC should reflect the nation. When we turn on the television, the nation should be reflected back at us, but too often it is not. We do not see enough black and minority faces on screen. There are also not enough lesbian and gay people in senior management positions or, more importantly, on screen as authority figures, where they should be seen. I have made this point before. The BBC has always been absolutely fantastic at attracting gay people into comedy roles and on to gameshows, but they are not the authority figures who present the news, as they should be.