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BBC Licence Fee Payers (Voting Rights)

Volume 523: debated on Tuesday 8 February 2011

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the BBC to enable licence fee payers to vote on its strategic direction and aspects of senior salaries and programming, including referenda on particular issues; to provide for election of the BBC Trust and the non-executive members of the BBC Executive Board by licence fee payers; to make other provision relating to the governance of the BBC; and for connected purposes.

I welcome the chance to present this ten-minute rule Bill today on democratising the licence fee. I believe that this measure will enhance the BBC rather than weaken it. Like many of our countrymen, I believe that the BBC is a great British institution. It has an umbilical cord to the British people. If it did not exist, we might even have to invent it.

On the question of impartiality, I have issues, which I will raise later in my remarks. Nevertheless, when respected journalists such as Peter Sissons suggest that the BBC has an institutional left-wing bias, ironically in some ways it is good for people like me and other Conservatives. It means that we cannot brook complacency, and that we have to be that much better than the centre-left in presenting our case. When it comes to BBC impartiality, I am reminded of the old maxim of Shimon Peres, who described the BBC World Service as

“making dictatorship untenable, and democracy unbearable”.

It is nevertheless worth having.

I listen regularly to BBC radio, including the World Service, which is central to spreading liberal democracy around the world. However, despite the BBC’s positive attributes, of which there are many, it has fundamental flaws. That is why I am raising this matter today. I have been campaigning for the democratisation of the licence fee for a long time, raising it with the Culture Secretary and tabling several early-day motions. I sometimes feel like the man on the Clapham bus.

Let me outline the problems as I perceive them. First, the BBC is monopolistic, with about a third of TV viewing and half of radio. Monopolies tend to concentrate power in the hands of a few executives and to take power away from ordinary people and customers, which is something we should worry about. Secondly, the BBC is often branded as anti-competitive because it does not have to make a commercial return on its products. One example of that was BBC jam, an online education service that in 2007 was crowding out other education businesses such as Pearson UK in my constituency. In the end, it was rightly withdrawn from service.

Thirdly, the licence fee is a mediaeval anachronism. It is similar to our voting system in the UK before the Reform Acts of the 19th and 20th centuries in that it is taxation without representation and means disfranchisement. We are right not to tolerate that in our politics and we should not tolerate it in our public media either. This point is crucial. If one wants to watch television, which is a basic hope these days, one must buy a licence. The licence fee does not pay for universal infrastructure but is all spent on the BBC. Like all taxes, the licence fee is a coercive system that is backed by the threat of fines and prison, but what if we do not like decisions taken by the BBC Trust and its director-general? Some might feel that the licence fee is a regressive tax which penalises those on low incomes. Others will be upset by the salaries of senior BBC executives and celebrities. Many were angered at the BBC’s assault on the late Norris McWhirter, a war hero and founder of the Freedom Association.

The reality is that licence fee payers want choice. Some might want a beefed-up World Service, paid for by reducing expense elsewhere—perhaps by cutting the £50,000 a day that the BBC spends on taxis, or by abandoning the hugely expensive and unwanted move to Salford. Some might want more spent on Radio 3 or Radio 1. Although licence fee payers will welcome the freeze in the fee that the Government have negotiated, much more needs to be done. If we had choice, we might choose a BBC with twice as many news journalists as broadcasters, paid for by reducing celebrity salaries, but at the moment we are powerless, because the BBC is run like a feudal monarchy. As licence fee payers, we are compelled to pay our dues, and if we do not like that, our only choice is to abandon TV altogether. What recourse do we have? Where is the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority or level playing field on freedom of information for the BBC?

There is a statutory requirement for the BBC to consult its licence fee payers, but everyone knows that many of the current so-called consultations are a sham, with most decisions having been made well in advance. When he was running for the leadership of the Labour party, the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband) called, in a variant of my idea, for the BBC to become some sort of co-operative. I have no objection to that in principle, but the best way to ensure real democratic control of the BBC is to allow licence fee payers, at individual level, to make key decisions. We must give them the chance to sack grandees if they have grown out of touch with public opinion. Under such a system, licence fee payers would be free to elect the board and chairman of the BBC, agree the annual report and have some say over programme making and the payment of celebrity salaries. It would be similar to shareholders having the ability to hire and fire their board, but with one main difference—every licence fee payer would hold just one share and one vote. Licence fee payers would vote via the internet with a special PIN, keeping administration costs low. The BBC could even call a special referendum for controversial issues, such as whether to allow extremists such as the British National party to appear on “Question Time”. Senior BBC members and outside candidates could compete in primaries against each other. We could spark a genuine debate—a battle of ideas—about the kind of BBC that we want, and how it should spend our money.

To those who say that democracy results only in the lowest common denominator, I say that is untrue. Look at Classic FM and Sky News. There is a real demand out there for quality, and I have a great faith in the British people. The BBC cannot continue—dare I say it—to be a kleptocracy, indifferent to the public who pay for it. Auntie pays out huge salaries to executives and celebrities alike. Her bureaucracy grows exponentially. Her undemocratic licence fee has become an anachronism in the days of multi-channel satellite television. If the BBC really does depend on the licence fee for its survival, then there must be some genuine checks and balances. What better way than democratising the licence fee?

Question put and agreed to.


That Robert Halfon, Nick de Bois, Craig Whittaker, Pauline Latham, David Tredinnick, Priti Patel, Mr James Clappison, Mr Lee Scott, Mr David Nuttall, Laura Sandys, Simon Hart and Nadhim Zahawi present the Bill.

Robert Halfon accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 25 November and to be printed (Bill 142).