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Television Licence Fee

Volume 514: debated on Monday 26 July 2010

6. If he will bring forward proposals to reduce the television licence fee by 25% over the next four years. (10675)

8. What his plans are for the future level of the television licence fee; and if he will make a statement. (10677)

The Secretary of State has said that a huge number of things need to change at the BBC. Will he tell the House what he means by that and provide a list of the changes that he thinks are in order?

I have been very clear that in its use of licence fee payers’ money, the BBC needs to be on the same planet as everyone else. We are tackling a huge deficit as a result of the economic legacy left by the last Government. As we are having to be careful about every penny of taxpayers’ money we spend, so the BBC must be careful with every penny of licence fee payers’ money that it spends.

Government Departments are having to cut their expenditure by between 25% and 40%. Will the Secretary of State insist that the bloated nationalised state broadcasting service does exactly the same and passes on the savings to the licence fee payer?

My hon. Friend will know that we are committed to a strong BBC that focuses on producing great TV and high-quality news. He is absolutely right. There has been a trickle of stories about BBC pay and expenses, particularly BBC management pay; lots of people at the BBC do not have high salaries. The BBC must look at what happened to Parliament when we lost the trust of the public because we did not handle our own expenses correctly, and it must be careful not to make the same mistakes.

Licence fee payers will have found last night’s broadcast of “Sherlock”, produced by BBC Wales and written by the excellent Steven Moffat, first class and great value for money. Earlier, the Secretary of State took pains to name the chairman of the BBC Trust and his former political affiliations, along with the chairman of Ofcom. By doing that, was he trying to call into question their impartiality in the work that they do, and if not, why did he bother to say it?

I, too, watched “Sherlock” last night and thought that Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch did a brilliant job. It was a very good example of the BBC at its best, investing in new programming.

I am not in any way calling into question the impartiality of the two gentlemen I mentioned earlier, but the Opposition should not preach lessons on impartiality when they were so careful to put people of their own political affiliation in charge of so many Government quangos.

Does the Secretary of State understand the concern of many of my constituents and others across the country following the report in The Daily Telegraph of his comments on the BBC? They feel that its high-quality programming is something to be supported and celebrated, not least the excellent independent news coverage that is free of the influence of commerce, or indeed Rupert Murdoch.

I agree with the hon. Lady about the importance of the BBC spending money on high-quality programming. That is what the coalition Government believe is one of the primary roles of the BBC. I also agree with her that one thing that has made British broadcasting some of the highest-quality broadcasting in the world is that we have a mix of funding streams, including the licence fee, advertising-funded programming and subscription-funded programming. That is why we are happy with that structure and intend to continue with it.

In the context of reducing the licence fee, what consideration has the Secretary of State given to encouraging the BBC to sell off some of its assets, possibly including Radio 1 and some of its other services?

We have no plans to ask the BBC to sell off Radio 1. There may be possibilities in the case of some of the BBC’s commercial assets, such as BBC Worldwide, and we await any proposals that the BBC may have. However, we are committed to a publicly funded, publicly owned national broadcaster as a benchmark of quality in the broadcasting system. We believe we are one of the few countries in the world to have competition at the quality end of the broadcasting market as well as the popular end, and we want that to continue.

Policy on broadband is a joint responsibility of the Secretary of State’s Department and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and he has indicated that he will dip into the licence fee to support the roll-out of high-speed broadband. Can he confirm that any new funding from that source will not be available until 2013 at the earliest, which is three years late, when Labour’s phone levy would have been generating £150 million a year in three months’ time, not in three years? Given his aim to reduce the licence fee, can he give any assurance that that level of funding will be available even three years late, and given the complete absence of significant new funding for high-speed broadband, is he embarrassed that his pre-election promises on high-speed broadband have so quickly turned to dust?

Let me confirm a few things that the right hon. Gentleman ought to be aware of, given that he was a Minister responsible for the matter. The first is that the money that his Government had allocated to ensure that everyone in this country could access broadband at a minimum speed of 2 megabits per second was less than half the total cost of doing that. That was why, when we examined the situation, we decided that we would honour the pledge but would not be able to do so by 2012 and extended it to 2015. As in so many areas, his Government simply did not leave enough money in the pot.