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House of Commons Hansard
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06 February 2020
Volume 671

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(Urgent Question): At the risk of getting a cold shoulder, I should like to ask the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to make a statement on the Government’s plans for the future of the BBC licence fee.

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I would like to reiterate the words of the Secretary of State yesterday and, first, outline the importance of the broadcasting sector and the value that we as a Government place on it. Globally, the BBC is seen as a beacon of British values. It is one of the most recognised and trusted brands, reaching more than 400 million people around the world every week. However, it is important to acknowledge that the media landscape is changing, as is its content and how we consume it.

Set against that, there remain legitimate concerns that the criminal sanction for TV licence fee evasion is unfair and disproportionate, and indeed an anachronism. As we move into an increasingly digital age with more and more channels to watch and platforms to choose from, we must revisit the logic of criminalisation and ask whether criminal penalties for consumer choice are consistent with a just and democratic society. We therefore believe it is right to look again at whether the criminal sanction is still appropriate. This is why it is right, as the Secretary of State announced yesterday, that the Government are launching an eight-week public consultation to examine the decriminalisation of TV licence evasion and to share the thoughts on the TV licence model and how it may yet change over time. The Government will consider the results of the consultation when it is completed.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this timely and important urgent question. As our public sector broadcaster, the BBC is central to the lives of our constituents: 91% of Britons use the BBC every week, and 26 million households have a TV licence. The future of the BBC as a public service broadcaster is a crucial matter to all of us. Yesterday, the Government announced plans to look into the decriminalisation of non-payment of the licence fee, but decriminalisation was not mentioned in the Conservative party manifesto. Prisons are not overflowing with people locked up for non-payment, and the courts are not overwhelmed with non-payers. Last year, only five people were imprisoned for non-payment, so my question is: why now, when there are so many other pressing matters for Government time, and especially as the Government’s own independent review, carried out as recently as 2015, concluded that the current system was the fairest and most effective way of funding the BBC?

Convicting people through the civil courts could mean higher fines for vulnerable people and greater evasion. The cost of transitioning to a new civil system could cost the BBC at least £25 million in set-up costs and lost revenue. Does the Minister think that that would be good value for money? Does he believe that the Government have a mandate for such a drastic change to the primary funding stream of our public service broadcaster? Have the Government made any assessment of the likely impact on the BBC’s ability to carry out core programming functions?

The Secretary of State said yesterday that the BBC needed to be more transparent and accountable, but does the Minister not think that the Government need to lead by example rather than deciding who may and may not attend press briefings and banning Ministers from appearing on respected news outlets? Can he assure me that this announcement is not part of a deliberate strategy by the Government to undermine an organisation with which they have been at loggerheads?

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I absolutely assure the hon. Lady that this has nothing to do with what she mentions. I remind her that this is a consultation on whether criminal sanctions are proportionate and fair, and we believe it is right to look again at whether that is the correct model for licence fee evasion. I hope the hon. Lady does not mind me saying that she has some experience of not paying the licence fee, because I understand that her character in “Coronation Street” went to prison for not paying, and I do not think that that was particularly fair and proportionate. The consultation will run for eight weeks, and many of the hon. Lady’s questions will form part of it. I am sure she will be contributing to it, and I encourage all Members and the wider public to ensure that they make their views known.

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I say to the Government, through my hon. Friend, that the question underlying all this is the one identified by the Canadian broadcasting pioneer Graham Spry in 1932:

“It is a choice between the State and the United States.”

If any change to the BBC leads to its disappearance or vulnerability, there will be a great responsibility on anyone who is involved in that process. May I suggest to my hon. Friend that in this consultation we should compare not the disadvantages of the present system with the advantages of the alternative, but the disadvantages of the alternative with the advantages of the present system?

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My hon. Friend the Father of House speaks with great experience on these matters, but I gently remind him what this consultation is about. We believe it is right to look again at whether criminal sanctions are the correct model for licence fee evasion. There will need to be a much broader conversation as to whether the licence fee model is the correct model beyond 2027, but the current model is guaranteed until the end of that period.

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Many criticisms could be made by politicians and others, but the BBC is more than just its news output. Scotland has the new BBC Scotland channel, which has a budget of only £32 million despite Scottish licence fee payers putting in £311 million a year, with only £249 million spent in Scotland. Despite that austerity budget—the broadcasting equivalent of DIY and ticky-tacky—the BBC has managed to produce some great quality output against the odds, with comedy, culture, “Debate Night” and the well-produced “The Nine”, but it is not sustainable and must be properly funded.

Scotland has already implemented a system whereby no one faces a custodial sentence for failing to pay their TV licence, but there is a clear, unmistakable pattern when it comes to this Government and their attitude towards the media. The BBC is not Netflix. Banning lobby journalists from press briefings, failing to participate in media interviews, and carefully cultivating a group of friendly journalists to pursue their narrow agenda is straight out of the Trump playbook. Many will rightly be concerned that the Tories now intend to use their majority to dismantle the scrutiny of public service broadcasting, having already forced the BBC to adopt social policy. What will the consultation do to ensure that moneys raised in Scotland for public service broadcasting are actually fully spent in Scotland?

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Ministers do talk to the public through a wide range of programmes every day, including on the BBC. That has always been the case and will continue to be so, and the lobby meetings happen twice a day, as the hon. Gentleman is aware. I remind him that the media landscape is changing. For example, five years ago a TV licence was not required to watch or download content on the BBC iPlayer. I hope that he raises his concerns about the BBC in Scotland as part of the consultation.

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I thank the Government for their wisdom in bringing forward a consultation to remove an anachronistic privilege. Does not the hysterical reaction of defenders of the BBC speak for itself?

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The BBC is an incredibly respected brand around the world. My hon. Friend will be aware that the Prime Minister recently said the BBC is, in fact, a “cherished British institution”.

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As a Yorkshire MP, the Minister will know the importance of the regional BBC—both local television and local radio—to our constituents and the role it serves in the community. I remember its public service announcement function during the 2007 flooding. What thought has been given to making that function clear in the consultation so that people fully understand what they get from paying their licence fee?

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I completely agree with the hon. Lady. I have experience of working closely with the BBC regionally, particularly when we also had flooding. It is crucial that we have a BBC that reaches everywhere. The BBC serves our constituents particularly well. I hope she contributes to the consultation, which I remind her is about whether a criminal sanction is fair and proportionate for TV licence fee evasion. That is the remit of this consultation.

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One of the arguments being run by the anti-BBC forces is that the magistrates courts are being clogged by the number of cases. Yesterday, the chair of the Magistrates Association said the change would make a minimal difference—less than 1% of the time spent: it would be an insignificant difference and we would hardly notice it. At this early stage of the consultation, will the Minister note that the idea that magistrates courts are overwhelmed by licence fee evasion is simply false?

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My right hon. Friend makes a good point. My understanding is that over 120,000 people were prosecuted and sentenced for non-payment of the licence fee last year, and the average fine for those who were prosecuted was £176. I am sure that takes a considerable amount of court time.

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For the second time today, may I recommend that a Minister reads the most recent Select Committee report on this issue? Chaired by the Minister’s excellent colleague, the right hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), the Committee considered the evidence in detail before the last licence fee review—I am sure the Minister likes evidence-based policy—and we found absolutely no grounds for doing this.

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As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we had the Perry review five years ago. The landscape has changed, and we believe it is right to look again at whether the criminal sanction remains appropriate. I met many people during the election who asked whether it is fair and proportionate to be potentially criminalised for non-payment of the TV licence fee.

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Does the Minister agree that the BBC’s public service broadcasting is at its best in local radio coverage of rugby league, cricket and football? Those sports are not getting any local coverage on commercial radio. Whatever the future funding model, that type of broadcasting must be protected.

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I agree with my hon. Friend, who spent many years working for local stations in that sector. It is important that we maintain a local connection with communities via the BBC, and sport is an important part of that.

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The Minister has said several times that the media landscape is changing. Does he agree that for decades the main driving force in that developing media landscape—including iPlayer and Freeview—has been the BBC? By calling for this consultation and saying it will happen, does he appreciate that for a lot of people it calls into question the Government’s commitment to the licence fee and to the BBC as it is today? The concern for many of us is that this changing media landscape is being used as an excuse.

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I do not agree on that point with the hon. Lady. The broadcasting landscape is constantly changing—she is right about that—and this is only going to get faster. Ofcom research found that more children recognise the names Netflix and YouTube than they do the BBC, which should be an eye-opener for all of us. Conservative Members believe that the BBC is a beacon of British values, but we should be alive to the changes in the way people are consuming television.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that the nub of this is about fairness and proportionality? If we are to have a free and open market in television, non-payment of the licence fee should be treated no differently from that of any other service?

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My hon. Friend is right: this whole consultation is about whether criminal sanctions are a fair and proportionate system in the current world in which we live.

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Given the demand that the BBC takes on social policy on the over-75s concessionary TV licence and now this consultation, how can the Government say that this is about anything other than an attack on public sector broadcasting and asset stripping the BBC?

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I am not sure I could disagree more with the hon. Gentleman. The Government are very disappointed with the BBC’s decision to restrict the over-75 licence fee concession to those in receipt of pension credit. We absolutely recognise the value of free TV licences for the over-75s and believe they should be funded by the BBC.

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The hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) alluded to the BBC being responsible for Freeview, but it is not free. People have to pay the tax in order to access other TV channels that are nothing to do with the BBC. The younger generation, who are not represented very well in this Chamber, do not watch the BBC any more, so why should they pay this tax?

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My right hon. Friend makes a fair point, and this is why we are having this consultation, to which he will no doubt contribute. Younger people, especially those I have spoken to in the past year, do not understand why they have to pay for a service that they do not use. It is only right that we look at whether criminalising people for non-payment of the TV licence fee is fair and proportionate.

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I do not think the Minister really believes in the licence fee at all, but the truth of the matter is that nothing in life is free. “Gavin & Stacey” does not come for free, and neither do “Strictly Come Dancing”, “Sherlock” or any of the great dramas, comedies or wildlife documentaries on the BBC. None of that comes for free. It comes free to air because everybody pays in and everybody gets something in return. It is a fundamental part of the way we do things in this country. The problem is that if we pull at a snag in a jumper, we end up unravelling the whole thing, and my worry is that that is precisely what the Government intend.

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I have an awful lot of respect for the hon. Gentleman, but he is missing the point of what this consultation is about. At the risk of repeating myself, it is about whether criminal sanctions for licence fee evasion are proportionate and fair. I am sure he will be contributing to the consultation, as well as in this House, and I am sure he will do so on many more occasions.

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If the BBC is as popular and provides as much value for money as the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) and others say, surely it has nothing to fear from going to a subscription model, because presumably everybody will be queueing up to pay their subscription as it is such wonderful value for money. The BBC is petrified of abolishing the licence fee because this may emphasise how unpopular the BBC is and how few people want to contribute. I welcome this consultation on decriminalisation, but may I urge the Minister to go further and stop this unjustifiable tax on people, which they have to pay whether they want to watch the BBC or not? It is unsustainable in the long term, because of modern technology. In the meantime, will he make sure that over-75s do not have to pay it?

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Let me start by congratulating my hon. Friend on his election to the Select Committee. I know he is a huge fan of the BBC. He is right to say that as we move forward into an increasingly digital age, where there are more and more channels to watch and platforms to choose from, it is clear that many people consider it odd that they can be imprisoned for not paying their licence fee. On the over-75s free licence, we believe that is the responsibility of the BBC.

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Is it not a fact that the BBC has been great at undermining itself? It tells us that it cannot afford to spend £750 million on licence fees for the over-75s, yet it can afford to pay 493 of its employees above their grade pay band and 129 of them above the highest-grade band, and it can afford to pay only 21 of those in the lowest-rate band above their pay band. When is the Minister going to get this out-of-control broadcaster under control?

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The BBC is alive to the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises. It is having to deal with a number of pay-equality cases and I am sure that there will be many more of those cases. Nevertheless, I am sure the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the BBC is operationally independent from Government.

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Surely this is an incredible opportunity for the BBC. The licence fee restricts its paying base to the UK, but if it had a subscription model, it could export to the entire world. As the Minister said, the BBC’s own prediction is that it will have a global audience of a billion people a week by the end of the decade. If just 5% of those people were to take out a subscription to the iPlayer at £6 a month, the BBC would recoup the entire £3.7 billion that it gets from the licence fee, but as export income instead of a tax on the British people.

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My hon. Friend makes some good points, but we are talking about the decriminalisation consultation, not how the BBC is funded in future. The current model is valid until 2027 and there has to be a conversation before then about what model is appropriate for the BBC in a digital age.

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We have rightly heard about the importance of the BBC’s local and regional coverage, but I remind the Minister of the importance of its international coverage. The World Service is the world’s most trusted news provider and an important part of the UK’s soft power. The Minister has said that the media landscape is changing, and he is absolutely right, which is why public service broadcasting is under pressure. At this time, surely the BBC needs our support more than ever.

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The hon. Gentleman makes a sensible point. The Government strongly support the BBC’s mission to bring high-quality and impartial news to a global audience, including some of the most remote places in the world and particularly where free speech is limited. The BBC recently launched 12 new language services, and we very much support its approach in that regard.

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Can we not have an open mind and move on? We are no longer in the 1940s, with the whole nation huddled around a single radio set. This whole row about the licence fee for over-75s and this issue shows that we really have to consider other options. Is it fair to impose a poll tax on elderly people just to watch television when there is a whole mass of alternatives—one might say a morass? The same is true for young people. Will the Government please have a genuinely open mind about moving the BBC into the 21st century on a subscription basis?

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My right hon. Friend is right to right to ask that question, and that is why we will be discussing how the BBC is funded going forward, but I remind him that the consultation is about whether a criminal sanction is fair and proportionate for non-payment and licence-fee evasion. Of course, we have to have conversations as to whether, in a digital age, the current licence fee model is appropriate.

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I fear that if we look beyond the headline about the decriminalisation of non-payment, we see yet another attack from the Government Benches, led by the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), on the BBC and the very principle of public service broadcasting. Given the shambles of the licence fee for over-75s, does the Minister agree that power over the licence fee should be removed from Government to avoid such political jiggery-pokery in future?

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When we look at how the BBC is going to be funded, we will speak to everyone, and all our masters, particularly the general public, will have their say.

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I welcome this long-overdue consultation on the decriminalisation of non-payment of the TV licence—something that I tried to include in the Deregulation Bill back in 2014, and that at the time had the support of the majority of Members. My hon. Friend will be aware that the non-payment of the TV licence fee is currently managed by the magistrates court. Is he also aware that the Magistrates Association has been calling for the decriminalisation of non-payment of the TV licence fee for more than 25 years?

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I am not surprised that the Magistrates Association has been calling for that. As I said in my answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) earlier, more than 120,000 people were prosecuted last year under the current regime, which is why we are having the review and consultation.

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As the Minister knows, S4C is largely funded these days via the licence fee, and the BBC itself is the main provider of broadcast news in both of the national languages of Wales. What assurances can the Minister give that these vital public broadcasting services will be adequately resourced well into the future?

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The hon. Gentleman is completely correct to raise this matter. S4C, as a public service broadcaster, is currently funded via the licence fee. We will be having conversations about the next settlement starting in 2022. Clearly, funding for S4C will form part of those discussions.

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The television licence fee can be a heavy burden to pay for some of the poorest people in our society, so will the Minister please tell me what the Government are doing to make it easier for people to pay, so that they can avoid this enforcement action in the first place?

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My hon. Friend is right to raise that matter. The licence fee is expensive for some people on the lowest incomes, so we will be introducing a new, simple payment plan. We have had trials of it, and I can confirm today that, with effect from 1 April 2020, there will be a new flexible payment instalment scheme designed to help exactly the people to whom he refers.

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Has the Minister considered that, in this day and age of streaming channels and hubs and the amount of work that independent channels have to do just to exist, it does seem absurd that there should be a state subsidised channel? Does he agree that it is time for the BBC to stand on its own feet and on its own merit?

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All of the hon. Gentleman’s questions need to be part of a much bigger conversation once we have done this consultation on whether criminalisation of licence fee evasion is fair and proportionate. We must have a conversation for beyond 2027, when the current deal via the charter expires, about how the BBC is funded in a digital age.

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The BBC recently announced that it was shedding 450 staff from the news department, and yet it said that it would still provide a fully comprehensive service. When those reports are seen by my constituents, many of whom find it difficult to raise the funds to pay for the licence, they think that the BBC does need slimming down. Will the Minister assure my constituents that he will keep up the pressure on the BBC to reduce its costs?

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The beauty of the current model is that there are assurances on funding, as there is a five-year deal. That has never been the case before, but I remind my hon. Friend that the BBC is completely independent from us, both operationally and editorially.

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I declare an interest in that my late parents met while they were working for the BBC, and that I installed the computer system that is actually used for collecting and verifying the licences. What assessment have the Government made on the increase in the avoidance of paying the licence fee and therefore the increase in costs of catching those people who do not pay, because that all adds to the costs and, indeed, to the implications of the funding?

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I am delighted to hear how my hon. Friend came about. We should all be grateful that he is the BBC’s responsibility. This is exactly why we are having this consultation. Of course there will be costs. Huge costs are associated with these levels of prosecutions, and I urge him, especially with his keen personal interest, to make sure that he gets involved in the consultation.