John Whittingdale The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology) 11:13, 24 October 2023
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate Mr Campbell on securing the debate and on raising what are important matters. I know that he has campaigned on this issue for many years. I have read his previous debates and parliamentary questions on the subject, and he has been assiduous. In a number of areas, I have considerable sympathy with him. I have been overseeing the BBC for a very long time in one capacity or another, and a number of the issues he raised are ones on which I, too, campaigned.
There are three issues on which we have made great progress, and for which I would like to take some credit, but I absolutely recognise the hon. Gentleman’s role. All the issues relate to the area of commissioning. The first is the National Audit Office’s access to the BBC. The extent to which the NAO was able to examine the BBC’s financial accounts was limited for quite a long time. As he knows, the BBC argued strongly that the NAO should not be given full access, with a succession of what I regarded as somewhat spurious excuses, such as that it would somehow interfere with the BBC’s independence from the Government. Well, the BBC is independent of the Government, but that does not mean that the BBC should not be held to account for the fact that it spends a very large amount of public money in the form of the licence fee. I am glad that, in the charter, we ensured that the NAO had full access to the BBC accounts.
The second matter is on the commissioning of programming. Previously, the BBC produced 50% of its content in-house. It was subject to a quota for indie productions of 25%, and then there was something known in the trade as the window of creative competition, or WoCC, which was the remaining 25% that could be opened up to either BBC in-house production or the independent sector. We reached the agreement that the BBC should move towards opening up the entirety of its schedule to competition from BBC production and independent production. The BBC is on track to achieve 100%, I think by 2027, which has provided a huge boost to the independent production sector. It was very strongly welcomed at the time by the Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television, the body representing independent producers. Opening this up does mean that the BBC’s public money, through the licence fee, is being used to commission programmes from private companies. That obviously needs to be done in a transparent and accountable fashion, which is one of the requirements of the charter, as the hon. Member for East Londonderry quoted.
The third area, which we also addressed in the last charter renewal—I, too, have campaigned on this issue and the hon. Gentleman also raised it—is transparency over the payment of public money in the form of salaries to high-earning BBC employees. Initially, the BBC resisted very strongly, believing that it would make it harder for them to recruit and that it would somehow give an unfair advantage to their competitors, but eventually, the BBC agreed to this at a higher threshold than was ultimately introduced. Actually, the Prime Minister who appointed me to oversee the task, David Cameron, agreed to that higher threshold, but when my right hon. Friend Mrs May became Prime Minister, she insisted on bringing it back down to £150,000. It has risen in line with inflation, so I think the figure for the publication of salaries is now £178,000.
The publication had an unforeseen consequence, as the hon. Member for East Londonderry mentioned. When I insisted on the publication of information about individuals earning high salaries, for the reasons that he gave, I did so on the basis that I thought it right that the licence fee payer should know where large amounts of the money were going. We did not realise that it would also expose the shocking gender pay gap between the salaries of men and women doing essentially the same jobs at the BBC. It had the consequence of making the BBC address that issue as well, and that was a very good demonstration of why transparency is so important.
The hon. Gentleman went on to talk about the way in which the BBC has to publish the names of its employees directly earning money over a certain threshold, but a number of people obtain payment from the Government through the intermediary of a private production company—a number of individuals have set that up. I agree with him that it is not entirely satisfactory that one person who earns a large amount of money from the BBC has their name published, and another does not, just because the way in which the BBC pays them is done through a slightly different route. I hope that is something we will continue to look at. I raised the issue when I was chairing the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, and I have raised it since, and I hope the BBC will continue to look at ways in which it can increase transparency, which is the right way forward.
The charter increased the level of independent oversight of the BBC by bringing in Ofcom as an independent regulator. We have a system whereby complaints about the BBC go first to the BBC, but can then be escalated to Ofcom. The Government does not get involved in that process. I think that is right, and for that reason, I cannot directly respond to some of the hon. Gentleman’s specific complaints. Those are for the BBC to examine. I agree that he has raised some important matters that I hope the BBC will look at, and indeed that Ofcom could investigate as well.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware, as is written into the charter, that the Government said there would be a review of the governance arrangements—called the mid-term review—that needs to be completed by 2024. We will publish the outcome of that very soon actually. While I cannot reveal that at this stage, I can say that one of the areas that has been raised with the Government a number of times, and which the hon. Gentleman raised again today, is the way in which the BBC has dealt with complaints and the fact that so few have been upheld. The Government’s view is that that process needs to be strengthened. We will have more to say about how we believe it can be strengthened—the BBC has agreed that it should be strengthened—when we publish the mid-term review.
Gavin Robinson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Defence)
I am grateful for the Minister’s attendance and for what he has just shared. A perception arising from some issues that my hon. Friend Mr Campbell raised is that some people in the BBC are too popular to be criticised, too successful to be touched, and too important in the ratings game to have issues raised about their conduct. Some of the points that my hon. Friend made touch on questionable, if not corruptible, practices around commissioning and around individuals and their behaviour. The Minister is right that Ofcom is there for when the BBC has completed its investigations, but Ofcom looks very particularly at regulatory matters. He mentioned the ongoing review, but can he give us any assurance that there will be a level of stringent and independent oversight in the BBC and through its management structure, so that when such issues are raised, which touch on malpractice or questionable practice around the allocation of financing and the commissioning of resources, the public and we all know there is integrity in the process of investigating them?
The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I agree that nobody who is in receipt of public money or who holds a senior position in a publicly owned and publicly funded organisation should be exempt from scrutiny to make sure that they are carrying out their functions properly, and that any concerns around that need to be investigated.
As for whether anybody is too popular or too senior to be examined or held to account, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the highest-paid BBC employee is Gary Lineker, and there has been quite a lot of controversy over some of his remarks. That is absolutely right and, as a consequence, the BBC has recently carried out a further consideration of their social media guidelines for highly paid staff and has brought those into play, partially as a result of some of those controversies. That matter is very different from the kind of issues that the hon. Gentleman raised. They relate to allegations that have been received about possible corrupt behaviour, and, obviously, that would also need to be investigated. The particular show that he referred to is presented by the fourth highest-paid person at the BBC. That, again, is another reason why a large amount of public money is spent, and we need to be satisfied.
As I said, this is not a matter that the Government can or should investigate, but there are independent bodies that do so. The first port of call I suggest the Gentleman might talk to is the BBC board member for Northern Ireland, Mr Michael Smyth. He was recently appointed and has taken up his post. Part of his role is to oversee the BBC’s activities in Northern Ireland, as well as to act as a member of the board as a whole. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will draw his concerns to Mr Smyth’s attention, and also take advantage of the BBC first complaints process.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about the individual who runs the editorial standards and guidelines committee, but there are also independent board members who sit on that committee. He could certainly draw his concerns to their attention. Ultimately, as we have discussed, the NAO has full access under the charter. If there are concerns about the way in which public money has been spent, that, too, is a matter that the NAO could investigate.
I do not in any way suggest that the hon. Gentleman has not raised some serious concerns; I hope they will be examined to his satisfaction. I think he is best placed to pursue them through the routes that I have suggested, but I am grateful to him for raising these matters this morning.
Question put and agreed to.