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Television Licence Fee

Volume 480: debated on Monday 6 October 2008

None. The licence fee settlement announced in January 2007 by the then Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell), covers the period from 1 April 2007 to 31 March 2013.

By 2013, we may find that the licence fee itself is somewhat out of date. Mr. Speaker, when you and I were boys—not so long ago—the BBC was regarded across the world as the gold standard of broadcasting, but many people now question the regressive nature of taxation through the licence fee. They question whether it gives the BBC an unfair advantage over commercial competitors, not just in the broadcast media but among local newspapers. Notwithstanding the work of the BBC Trust, people question the accountability of the BBC. Does the Secretary of State believe that the BBC gives the licence fee payer value for money, and will he address the concerns that people have raised?

The hon. Gentleman sounds dangerously off message; it sounds as though he has not done his homework. I am led to believe that one Polly Toynbee is the columnist of choice for those on the Conservative Benches these days, and I am sure that her column is the first thing that he looks for when the papers drop through his letterbox. In The Guardian today, she says that:

“at less than the price of a daily newspaper, the BBC remains astounding value.”

I happen to agree with that—[Interruption]—but from the noises on the Opposition Benches, I am beginning to pick up on the fact that the Opposition do not. If they do not, they should make that absolutely plain.

Obviously I agree with the Secretary of State’s estimation of the BBC, but he should accept that this reactionary and regressive tax, which means that the poorest in the land pay the same as the richest, may no longer be sustainable. I ask him to talk with the BBC, just as we are talking with energy companies and others. If very poor people in my constituency who do not watch the BBC continue to have to fork out for this ever-increasing tax, there will be serious social problems.

My right hon. Friend will remember that there was a very thorough debate on the issues when my right hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood set the new licence fee only a few months ago. All those issues were taken into account. The charter review concluded that, compared with the alternatives, the licence fee continues to be the best funding mechanism for the foreseeable future. Now that there is pressure on commercial public service broadcasting, it is crucial that we maintain a strong BBC as the backbone of our public service broadcasting system. The BBC is an international beacon, and I think that the licence fee is the fairest way to fund a universal service that is widely loved and respected by many.

BBC Alba, an excellent new Gaelic channel, has met with popular acclaim, particularly in my constituency, since it began broadcasting about two weeks ago, on channel 168 on Sky. Will the Minister use his influence with the BBC and the BBC Trust to make sure that the licence fee is used to ensure that the channel is accessible on Freeview as soon as possible?

I give the hon. Gentleman a commitment that I will look into that proposal. My Department has been very supportive of the service that he mentioned, and we will continue to support it in whatever way we can. I cannot stand here today and give him a precise answer to his question, but I will look into it.