John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): I rise to speak on the issues of the independence of broadcasting and campaign funding covered by two of the new clauses. It is most important that we should have a fair referendum and I think that the House has made a wise decision this evening to further that aim. I hope that the nation’s leading broadcaster, the BBC, will enter into the spirit of wanting that fair campaign and will study and understand where those who wish to stay in and those who wish to leave are coming from. It needs to learn that in the run-up to the referendum campaign proper as well as in the campaign itself. My hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) has tabled a suitable new clause to try to ensure that that happens and I hope that the Minister will share our wishes and might have something to say on this point.
I notice that in recent months it has been absolutely statutory for practically every business person being interviewed on business subjects and subjects of great interest to consumers and taxpayers to be asked for their view of whether their business would be ruined if we left the European Union. The question is always a leading question and they are treated as somewhat guilty or suspect if they do not immediately say yes, of course, their business would be ruined if we were to leave the European Union.
Sir William Cash (Stone) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend sometimes wonder how these people come to be asked to go on the programme?
John Redwood: It would be far too dangerous for me to speculate on that without more factual information at my disposal. My hon. Friend is being slightly mischievous. I could not possibly agree with him and call into question how people are invited to BBC interviews. However, it is interesting that the one argument that the campaign to stay in the EU seems to have—that leaving the EU would be bad for business and jobs would be lost—has become a constant refrain in all BBC interviews.
The BBC seems devastatingly disappointed when a lot of businesses take the opposite view. It was fascinating to hear the wonderful interview with Nissan last week. The whole House will welcome the great news that Nissan has a very big investment programme for the United Kingdom’s biggest car plant, which will carry it through the next five years and beyond with a new model. When the BBC tried to threaten that investment by asking, “Wouldn’t you cancel it if the British people voted to come out of the EU?”, Nissan said, “No, of course we wouldn’t.” It is about the excellence of the workforce, the excellence of the product and access to an extremely good market here. It is in no way conditional upon how people exercise their democratic rights in Britain.
It is that spirit—the spirit of Nissan—that I hope the BBC will wish to adopt when contemplating such interviews in future. I hope that it will understand that most business interviews over the next few months should not be about the politics of the EU; they should be about whether the company is doing well—creating jobs, making profits and investing them wisely. If the business is misbehaving, then by all means the interview should be about the allegations.
Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): Who does the right hon. Gentleman think is behind this sinister conspiracy at the BBC? Is it the director general or some other individual in a senior position, or are other forces directing the BBC in such a way that he believes there is a conspiracy to keep Britain in the European Union?
John Redwood: I never said that there is a conspiracy, and I have not suggested that there is one figure in the BBC who holds that view; I think that most people in the BBC hold that view, and I think that it is quite spontaneous. I think that in some cases they are not even aware that they are doing it. I note that many Members, including on the Opposition Benches, are nodding their heads wisely. They, too, have heard such interviews. It now seems almost a statutory requirement in what should be interviews on general business subjects to regard those people as having some unique insight into our future in the European Union, ascribing to them supernatural powers that apparently the millions of other voters in the country do not share, asking them to dictate the future. I think that the referendum is a democratic process and that everyone’s vote is of equal weight and value. It is a conversation for the whole country. I am not against business people joining in, because I am a democrat, and they have voices; I just think that it is a bit odd that our leading broadcaster wants to turn every business interview into a political interview.
Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I am charitable to the BBC and do not think that it sets out to be biased in its coverage. The problem—I am not entirely sure how my right hon. Friend will tackle this point—is that it sets out to talk only to people from the same metropolitan set, and they all have the same opinions. The people in the BBC need to get out more and discover that across the country there are opinions different from those of their narrow band of people. How does he think they can address that? It is not conscious bias; they just need to get out more.
John Redwood: My hon. Friend make his comments in his own inimitable way. That is not quite what I was trying to say, or how I was going to say it, but this is a free country and it is wonderful to hear him contribute to the debate.
I am just trying, in the brief few moments that you have kindly allowed me, Mr Speaker, to extend the conversation from this great Chamber to the BBC and to say to it, “We all want you to be part of this big family conversation in the run-up to the referendum, but you have a unique responsibility, because you are charged with independence, fairness and balance. We trust that you will be especially careful, because many people have very passionate views on both sides of the argument, and that always creates more tensions and difficulties for broadcasters.”
John Nicolson (East Dunbartonshire) (SNP): I am curious to know whether the right hon. Gentleman was as acutely aware of that bias among business leaders during the Scottish referendum campaign, when they were wheeled out repeatedly as part of “Project Fear” to hone their skills, which we will doubtless see much of in the coming months. I just cannot remember him being so outraged at the time. Perhaps he could confirm that.
John Redwood: If the hon. Gentleman cares to check johnredwoodsdiary.com, my blog, he will see that I wrote on that very subject during the Scottish campaign ahead of the referendum and made very similar points to the ones I am making now about the role of business, where it can help and where it cannot. He will be disappointed to learn that I believe in being consistent. It has been one of my problems in politics, trying to be consistent, and if one seeks to combine consistency with being right, it can be absolutely devastating. I must now teach myself humility and realise that no one can always be right; we just have to carry on the conversation as best we can.
Tom Brake (Carshalton & Wallington) (LD): Are there any circumstances in which it would be legitimate for a BBC reporter to ask a UK business that trades with Europe whether there would be an impact on that business were the UK to come out of the European Union?
John Redwood: That would be appropriate if they were doing a package on attitudes towards Europe, for example; or it would be appropriate during the referendum campaign to have business voices as well as political voices and others—but not in every interview that is meant to be about a business subject. BBC reporters do not choose to do that every time a social worker is on to talk about a social work case, or some local government worker is on. They do not immediately ask, “What would happen to your job if we left the EU?” There is something quite odd about it. Very often, the business matters that are being discussed have nothing to do with foreign trade. Nor do I understand why the right hon. Gentleman and some others wish to mislead and threaten the British people into thinking that our trade would be at risk, because clearly it would not be at risk. All of us wish to trade with Europe and be friends with Europe, but some of us wish to have a relationship with the European Union that allows their euro to evolve into the political union that they want without dragging Britain in and losing our democracy in the process.
Tom Brake: I am getting more confused, because now the right hon. Gentleman is drawing a parallel between the impact that coming out of the EU would have on a business and the impact on a social worker. Perhaps he would like to explain in what way the UK coming out of the EU would have an impact on a social worker.
John Redwood: Of course coming out of the EU will have an impact on the conduct of the public sector in Britain, as well as on the private sector. It will change who makes the laws and how the budgets are run, for example. If we did not have to send £11 billion a year to the EU to be spent elsewhere, we would have more scope to have better social work and tax cuts in the United Kingdom. I think that would be extremely good news. Why are public service workers not asked whether they would rather see some of that money spent on their preferred public service than sent to be spent elsewhere in the European Union? That line of questioning would be just as interesting as the one trotted out each time for business people: “Will your business come to an end if the British people dare to vote for democracy?”
Philip Davies: Is not the point that the BBC tries to show that every business wants to remain in the European Union, when the fact is that many businesses want to leave the EU? The BBC always seems to be able to find businesses that want to stay in, but never seems to be able to look at the website of Business for Britain, which has more than 1,000 businesses that are quite happy to be outside the European Union.
John Redwood: That is a good point. The other constitutional point I would make about businesses is that in an entrepreneurial business where the entrepreneur-owner-manager owns 51% or more of the shares, of course they speak for business, so if they say, “I want to stay in,” or, “I want us to pull out,” that is not only their view but the view of the whole business. I can understand that and it is very interesting, but quite often the people being interviewed are executives with very few shares in very large companies, who have not cleared their view through a shareholder meeting or some other constitutional process. The BBC wishes to give the impression that that is the view of all the members of the company, whereas in fact it is just the opinion of an executive. It is interesting, and the executive may be quite powerful, but he does not necessarily speak for the company, and that is never stressed in the exchanges.
Sir William Cash: Does my right hon. Friend accept that, quite often, what is interesting is which questions are not asked, as well as those that are asked and the people who are put on? For example, some of us have for a long time been making the argument, based on House of Commons Library statistics, that we run a deficit with the other 27 member states of about £62 billion, whereas the Germans run a surplus with the other 27 member states of about the same amount or more. Why does that sort of argument never get aired or heard?
John Redwood: I am being tempted into byways on the substance of the debate in the forthcoming referendum, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right. We would like to hear more questioning of our deficit and a reminder that we are the customers more than the producers; it is the other way round for the Germans. It is unusual for the customers to be in a weak position and the producers in a strong position.
We should remember that we are the customer country in the European Union and that the customer used always to be right. Perhaps we should have rather more care taken over our attitudes because we are the customer, as a heavy net contributor to the European Union, and we would like to hear more questions about what are the other possibilities. What could we do with the money if we were not paying it in? What would happen to our trade deficit were we no longer inside the Union? The answer is that we would still have a big trade deficit with the European Union because trade would continue on exactly the same basis as it has so far throughout our partial membership. Of course, we are not in Schengen and not in the euro, so we are already in a different position.
I and many others want us to have a good relationship with the European Union, but to recognise that it is now driven by the euro. Britain is not about to join the euro, and therefore does not want or need the political union. I am very pleased that our Prime Minister is trying to sort out a new relationship. That had to done. Any sensible person, wherever they are on the spectrum of European-ness or pro-EU-ness, should see that this is a crucial moment in the future of the European Union where we need to sort out our relationships, so that we do not impede the EU but it does not make too many decisions on our behalf that the British people do not welcome or want.
On funding, to make sure that we have a campaign that is fair and perceived to be fair, we need to avoid the European Union itself spending any money or putting forward any propaganda during the campaign period. We also need to make sure that the spending limits on the political parties and the two main campaign teams are fair. I have no problem if one side raises more money than the other within the limits and is able to use it—that is the advantage of being more popular and that is the system we use. However, it is also fair to have some overall limit, as the Government are proposing. We need to be careful that the cumulative limits between different political parties and actors on one side do not become disproportionate, with the other side limited in the amount it can raise so that the thing is out of balance.
I would like my hon. Friend the Minister (Mr Liddington) to say a little more about how the two sides might line up. I would not want to find that the “leave” campaign, for example, did not have lots of political parties adding to its funding, and obviously did not have the European Union adding to it, and was then limited too much as a formal campaign. It would not be perceived as fair if one side was spending three times as much as the other under legal rules, and the other side was constrained. I hope that he will consider that and realise that we need a fair system so that people think it is a good result.