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British Broadcasting Corporation

Volume 13: debated on Thursday 26 November 1981

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4.

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he has any plans to meet the director-general of the BBC to discuss the financing of the corporation; and if he will make a statement.

My right hon. Friend met the chairman and the director general of the BBC last month to discuss the BBC's application for an increase in the television licence fees. No date has been fixed for any further meeting with them.

Will the Minister confirm that the BBC is after an increase to £50 in the licence fee? Will he acknowledge that there are nearly 10 million pensioners in this country who, together with those who are unemployed as a result of the Government's policy, would find extreme difficulty in paying a £50 fee? Is he aware that the Government have recently refused to increase pensions in line with inflation, which has meant a loss of about £50 a year to pensioners? Will he ensure that when the £50 licence fee is brought forward, pensioners will be excluded from paying the whole of it?

I think that what the BBC is seeking in terms of an increased licence fee is public knowledge. Our view is that it is better to continue to assist pensioners and the disabled by benefits in cash, which they can spend in their own way, rather than by benefits in kind. The television licence fee is included in the RPI basket.

Will my hon. Friend accept that many pensioners and others dread the prospect of yet another increase in the BBC licence fee? Will the Government now respond to the growing view that if the BBC needs more money it should be obtained from advertising, which is what happens with the rest of the media?

Our view is that to introduce a system for the BBC based on advertising finance would seriously change the character of the corporation. It could have the effect of diminishing variety of choice in the programmes that it can offer.

Will the Minister reconsider his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) about old-age pensioners? Will he undertake a survey of what old-age pensioners think? Does he not think that their answers would indicate the need for a concessionary television licence? Does he agree that there is too big a difference between a "5p licence" and the proposed £50 licence?

No, Sir. Concessions would inevitably mean either higher licence costs for everyone else or an increase in public expenditure. We believe that the present system is right. The pension takes account of increases in the RPI, which includes the cost of a television licence.

Does my hon. Friend agree that many people do not necessarily believe that the BBC puts to the best use the public money that is available to it? Does he think that before any question of an advance in the fees is considered officially there should be an independent survey of the way in which the BBC spends its money?

There are detailed discussions when the size of the TV licence is fixed. We have to be satisfied that the application is appropriate.

The Minister says that he prefers to assist pensioners by benefits in cash. Does he not agree that the Government have totally failed to keep pensioners' benefits in line with inflation? Is he not aware that pensioners are finding it harder than ever to manage day by day? What consideration have the Government given to assisting pensioners in the event of an increase in the licence fee?

I do not agree that the Government have failed totally to keep pensioners' pensions in line with inflation.