House of Commons
Tuesday 21 July 2020
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 4 June).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
The Secretary of State was asked—
Covid-19: Support for Business
Since the start of the covid-19 outbreak, the Government have provided £160 billion of support through a range of schemes to protect jobs and help businesses keep going. We have also provided support to businesses through measures in the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Act 2020 and the Business and Planning Bill. Working with business and trade unions, my Department has published detailed guidance to help businesses reopen safely.
The Government’s support for people and businesses during the covid crisis has been fantastic and has helped countless constituents in Penrith and The Border and across the UK. Unfortunately, many have still not been able to access support, such as the newly self-employed, limited company directors, freelancers, new starters and those who fall on the wrong side of the eligibility criteria. Will my right hon. Friend work with the Treasury to see whether those hard-working people can be helped with some emergency financial support?
My hon. Friend will know that we have supported over 9 million jobs through the job retention scheme, 2.7 million people have benefited from the self- employment support scheme and around 870,000 small businesses have benefited from grants. The Chancellor set out his plan for jobs a few days ago. The key now is to get the economy up and running, so that businesses can trade.[Official Report, 1 September 2020, Vol. 679, c. 2MC.]
That is absolutely right, but it is not just about bouncing back; it is also about levelling up. Will the Secretary of State join my hon. Friend the Universities Minister in giving his backing in the spending review to the shovel-ready MK:U—a much needed technical university in Milton Keynes which will deliver cutting-edge science, technology and engineering jobs and skills for local employers?
As my hon. Friend would expect, the MK:U proposal will be judged objectively on its merits. More generally, I can confirm that the Government recognise the significant potential of the Oxford-Cambridge arc and the important role of Milton Keynes in achieving that potential.
Airline pilots working for easyJet took an unprecedented decision on Friday to declare no confidence in their senior management. I have heard from many constituents who work at the airline in Liverpool and Manchester who are worried about the company’s approach of “fire and rehire on different terms”. Does my right hon. Friend agree that safety in the airline industry must always be paramount and that negotiations about future job losses should be respectful and in good faith?
My hon. Friend highlights an important point. Throughout the covid-19 period, the Government have provided unprecedented support for employment and worked in close partnership with the business community. I understand that it continues to be a difficult time for many businesses, but as he highlights, in that spirit of partnership, we expect all employers to treat their employees fairly and follow the rules.
I want to return the Secretary of State to the question asked by the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson) about the many businesses that are part of the 3 million ExcludedUK group. They include over 2 million people who are essentially self-employed but have been disqualified from help under the self-employment scheme for various—often arbitrary—reasons. In many cases, this is not simply rough justice but deep unfairness. Many of these individuals are not high earners. Will the Secretary of State give an indication that he recognises that this is an injustice, and can he tell us how he plans to address it?
The right hon. Gentleman will also acknowledge that the Government have provided unprecedented support to businesses across the whole economy. As I said, the key right now is to support businesses to open, to get the economy up and running. That is the best way that we can support businesses across the United Kingdom.
This issue of 3 million people being excluded is not going away. Let me ask him about the winding down of the furlough scheme. Yesterday, Make UK, the manufacturers’ organisation, said that a furlough extension was vital to prevent a “jobs bloodbath” in aerospace and automotive. We see the looming threat too in sectors that have not yet reopened, such as events and exhibitions, and those operating well below capacity, such as hospitality. Yet from next week, the Government are insisting that every single employer, whatever their industry, will have to start contributing to the furlough. Does the Secretary of State not recognise that this decision to phase out the furlough, irrespective of circumstances, risks handing a P45 to hundreds of thousands of workers?
The furlough scheme will have been up and running for a full eight months, providing a huge amount of support for more than 9 million jobs. It is becoming more flexible and allowing people to return to work part time. The right hon. Gentleman will know that the Chancellor has also set out the job retention bonus which, if it is taken up by all employers, will represent a £9 billion boost for the economy. I say to him again that the key is to get the economy up and running and to get businesses trading.
As we have heard, many businesses, sole traders, freelancers and others have been left without support throughout this health emergency. They are on their knees and they are still getting no support. How can they rebuild their trade when the Secretary of State’s Government will not help them? If his Government will not help them, why have they refused to allow simple adjustments to Scotland’s borrowing rules so that the Scottish Government can step in?
The hon. Gentleman talks about support in Scotland; like many colleagues in the House, I believe in the Union, and we must work together to support workers across the United Kingdom. More than 730,000 jobs have been protected in Scotland through the furlough scheme. The hon. Gentleman will know that, as a result of the additional moneys that the Chancellor announced at the summer statement, the total additional Barnett funding to Scotland since March is £4.6 billion.
Oh how the broad shoulders of the Union slump when asked a difficult question. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has exposed how the promised £800 million of consequentials for Scotland from the Chancellor’s job package is in fact only £21 million. Will the Secretary of State now do the right thing by Scotland’s businesses and urge the Chancellor to replace the missing £779 million—or has he also bought into the Prime Minister’s stated view that a pound spent in Croydon is of more value than a pound spent in Scotland?
Horizon Post Office Scheme
The independent review of Horizon will provide a public summary of the failings that occurred at Post Office Ltd, which I hope will give postmasters the answers that they have been seeking all these years. It will also ensure that lessons are learned for the future.
Last month, the Government announced an independent review of the Post Office’s Horizon IT system scandal that led to hundreds of postmasters being fired, many going bankrupt and others even being imprisoned. The Post Office Horizon scandal will go down as one of the biggest civil injustices ever. To restore public confidence and bring justice to the many lives ruined, it is vital that each individual case is assessed and that rightful compensation is paid to all those affected. A judge-led public inquiry is the only answer; will the Minister commit to that now?
The Post Office Horizon scandal is one of the biggest miscarriages of justice of our times: 20 years of reputations ruined, families torn apart and lives lost. Sub-postmasters were betrayed by a Post Office that so persecuted them that what compensation they have won has largely gone on legal fees, and they have now turned to the parliamentary ombudsman to investigate the full costs of a Government that failed
“to undertake its statutory duty of oversight”.
As we break for our summer holidays, will the Minister finally do the right thing and commit to a full, judge-led inquiry that will get to the bottom of the wrongs suffered and deliver both justice and compensation?
The chairman or woman of the review will be announced in due course so that we can start the review of this injustice in September at pace. It is important that we speak to the Post Office, the Government, the sub-postmasters and other people, including at Fujitsu, to get to the bottom of this matter so that we can learn the lessons and move forward for the sub-postmasters of the future.
This is the last Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy questions before recess and I want to place on record my thanks to you, Mr Speaker, and your staff for the incredible way that they have managed proceedings in the House.
It is Farnborough week and the Government are providing the aerospace industry and its aviation customers with more than £8.5 billion of support, including through UK Export Finance, the covid corporate financing facility, research grants and the job retention scheme. We are discussing further help with the sector.
May I start by thanking the Minister for his personal engagement given some of the difficulties that we have had with the aerospace sector in Northern Ireland, and particularly with Bombardier in my constituency? Given that it is Farnborough week, let me say that I read with interest the Minister’s comments yesterday on FlightGlobal in the question and answer session, and one of the missing components is the retention of key skills within this high-end engineering sector. Does the Minister accept that, without a clear, bespoke solution to support and sustain jobs beyond the cliff edge of October with the job retention scheme, the aerospace industry is facing a clear and present danger?
I am grateful to the hon. Member for his question and for his comments about our engagement with the sector. We are supporting the aviation and aerospace sector with £8.5 billion and rising. If he looks at support from other countries, which we do, he will see that we will also consider further support as we progress, as the Chancellor has said, through the recovery.
Wolverhampton North East is home to aerospace companies that have seen an unprecedented and sudden collapse of demand. Collins Aerospace is now sadly considering mass redundancies. What further support can the Government offer to limit job losses in Wolverhampton?
We work with the whole aerospace industry. I am the co-chair of the Aerospace Growth Partnership. As well as access to the furlough scheme and the corporate finance scheme, the Secretary of State announced yesterday £400 million in further funding for research and development support for the sector to get to that Jet Zero flight. The Future Flight Challenge is already investing £300 million. We continue to work with the sector to make sure that those skill sets, that ecosystem that has been so brilliant at delivering an incredible industry in the UK, are maintained for the next three to five years, which is the timeline by which the sector looks to recover.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for facilitating these virtual questions for the past few weeks, and long may they continue.
Although yesterday’s announcement was welcome, the Minister and I both know that nearly all the projects have been a long time in coming—from well before the current coronavirus crisis—so, in that sense, the funds announced yesterday were already priced in by the sector. In order to protect the aerospace jobs of today, as others have asked, which are highly skilled and in areas of the country that can ill afford to lose them, we really do need further urgent action today. Will the Minister say more than he has so far, which has been warm words but not much real action, to reassure those working in aerospace that their jobs will be protected in the coming months and years?
I take issue with “warm words and no action” as £8.5 billion has been put to work to protect jobs and to protect the sector. It is great to see that, this week, Airbus has shown confidence in the UK with confirmation that the wings for its latest aircraft, the A321XLR, will be built in the UK at Broughton. That demonstrates our engagement not just with Airbus, but with Bombardier and with other major players in the market and, of course, the supply chain as well. We continue to put the support in place and to look at further support as we progress through the economic recovery.
Social Distancing: Beauty Sector
Further to the Prime Minister’s announcement on 17 July, I am delighted that all close contact services will be able to resume from 1 August. We have taken a phased, cautious approach to reopening our economy, guided by the scientific and medical advice.
The close contact sector of the theatre is the one that I want to ask about, Minister. What action can the Government take to support local theatres such as Jacksons Lane, Upstairs at the Gatehouse and the Park Theatre? My constituents work in those theatres and, sadly, redundancy notices are going out. What can be done to save these jobs and protect another highly skilled sector?
I totally understand, as Minister for London, that many theatres in the middle of London also require that support, but for provincial theatres around the country, we really do need to make sure that we can attract audiences back. That is why we are looking forward to working with theatre groups to have pilots for events so that when they are able to open, people can come safely and enjoy the performances that they have to offer.
Covid-19: Retail and Hospitality Sectors
Through the Business and Planning Bill, we are simplifying reliefs and the costs to cafés, pubs and restaurants of obtaining a licence to allow for outdoor dining. The Chancellor has also announced a six-month temporary VAT rate reduction from 20% to 5% for the hospitality, accommodation and attraction sectors. Both these measures should help to provide a welcome boost for business.
My constituency is known for its culinary delights such as the fantastic Butterfingers Deli, and Balti Bazaar in Lye, not forgetting its equally fantastic independent local pubs. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is crucial that we encourage customers to get back to our pubs and restaurants to support our local economies and get our economic engines firing again?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to get out there supporting our pubs and restaurants. The Eat Out to Help Out scheme operating during August is another great incentive to support participating restaurants, cafés, pubs and other food establishments. Al fresco dining midweek in balmy August weather should be a must for all of us.
Hospitality workers who, in normal times, rely on tips as a significant part of their income have been especially hit, not just because their workplaces have been shut but because furlough payments have not recognised tip-based income. The Government have committed to bringing forward legislation to ensure that hospitality staff can keep their tips; indeed, it was a Conservative party manifesto commitment. When will that legislation be brought to the House?
The Chairman of the Select Committee raises a very important point. As he knows, we have had to bring forward a number of emergency Bills. However, I recognise the point he is making, and we will look to see the earliest point at which we might be able to bring that forward.
Covid-19: Green Economic Recovery
The Prime Minister has made clear our intention to build back greener. We are taking action to deliver on that commitment, including through a commitment of over £3 billion to reduce emissions from our buildings across the UK, £800 million to promote carbon capture from power stations and industry, and a further £100 million being invested in R&D in direct air capture technologies.
I am delighted that the Chancellor focused on creating green jobs in his summer economic update. Does my right hon. Friend agree that launching a multi-billion pound drive to improve the energy efficiency of homes will not only be good for creating jobs and driving us towards our net zero target but will save people money on their energy bills?
I agree that it is great to have jobs created. Insulating homes creates jobs across all regions of the UK, yet right now it is having the opposite effect. Labour has been contacted by insulation businesses who are experiencing cancelled work as clients now want to wait until September, when green homes grant money is available. Will the Minister fix this problem, and fix it now, by stating that jobs done in July and August can claim green homes grant funding in September?
The hon. Lady asks a very pertinent question. The Chancellor set out a £3 billion programme, and of course it will take time before that money is fully deployed. As well as the green homes upgrade, we have committed £320 million to the heat networks investment project, which is very relevant to the kind of work that she has described.
With the Government having committed to invest in the bioscience sector in York, making it the heart of the green new deal, they are now trying to make that conditional on a local government reorganisation that is not only deeply unpopular but is also, frankly, unworkable. In the light of comments that York’s economy will be the second-worst hit in the country, with unemployment rising to as high as 28%, will the Minister instead now bring forward that investment, to prevent mass unemployment in my city, to prevent unnecessary economic pain and to kick-start investment in green-collar jobs?
As the hon. Lady knows, we are absolutely committed to creating green-collar jobs. Today, we have 460,000 of those jobs across the UK; by 2030, we have stated our commitment to have 2 million such jobs. No one can deny our commitment to creating green jobs. I would further add that we are also committed to making the UK a science superpower, and we will make innovation central to our green recovery. That is absolutely front and centre of what the Government are trying to do.
Commenting on his own report back in 2017, Charles Hendry said,
“the evidence is clear that tidal lagoons can play a cost effective role in the UK’s energy mix”.
This Government still have not managed to back the oven-ready pathfinder tidal energy project in Swansea bay. When will they recognise the opportunities, the new green jobs and the inward investment support that tidal power can bring to Swansea, Wales and the rest of the UK?
We are absolutely committed, as the hon. Lady knows, to tidal power and all forms of marine power. There was a specific issue with the Swansea bay tidal lagoon project, which was that it was felt not to be economical. That was a specific, project-based, single incidence where we did not feel that it was value for taxpayers’ money.
All we have right now, as far as energy efficiency for homes is concerned, is an announcement of a one-year scheme to provide vouchers for energy efficiency improvements in mostly lower priority properties, with no detail yet as to how that will work. The Minister simply did not answer the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) about businesses in the field who are telling us that jobs are being lost now, because people are cancelling work in anticipation of those details, if and when they come out.
What we need for green recovery is a long-term programme that develops jobs and skills and really contributes towards low carbon energy efficiency improvements across all homes in England and Wales. When does the Minister intend to provide details of how the short-term plan will work and what is he doing to establish a proper long-term home energy efficiency programme on the back of that plan?
Obviously, the hon. Gentleman and I will have slightly different views of what the Government are doing. I was surprised to hear him dismiss the £3 billion commitment. I remind him that green homes grants will deliver improvements to more than 650,000 homes, supporting 140,000 jobs in 2020-21. These are significant strides and a huge amount of money has been committed to that programme.
Covid-19: Indoor Air Quality
The Government have provided clear advice on ventilation in our safer workplaces guide. We are led by the science in that work and, as the scientific and medical advice changes, the guidance will be updated to reflect that.
The Minister should know that the science now shows that indoor air pollution dramatically increases coronavirus infection and death rates, and that masks inhibit the transmission of the virus. Will he today press to follow France’s lead to make compulsory mask-wearing the law in all indoor environments accessible by the public, and include indoor air pollution in the terms of the Environment Bill in September, in order to save lives and protect our NHS?
Around 90% of employees already have a statutory right to request homeworking as well as other forms of flexible working. We are now encouraging employers and employees to discuss how work can be done safely at home or in a covid-secure workplace.
Well, a recent survey has shown that two thirds of people would prefer to work from home either full time or part time, rather than work all the time at the places they worked from pre-covid. With this change in attitudes, which means we will end up with less pollution and probably a better standard of living, what can the Government do, and what can the Minister do, to encourage this type of working for those who want it?
We are aware of the wider benefits of flexible working. Nearly half of employees have worked from home during covid-19. Most employees already have the right to request flexible working, which employers can reject only for really sound business reasons. In our manifesto, we committed to take it further, and we will be looking at it in the light of covid.
Support for Businesses: Scotland
The Secretary of State and I hold regular discussions with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the issue of business support, including on the schemes available to support Scottish businesses affected by the covid-19 pandemic.
We are still waiting on the promised aviation sectoral support. Indeed, far from support, in my Adjournment debate the Minister essentially said that workers should be grateful that Rolls-Royce offered voluntary redundancy. Moreover, the Government have not acted to stop companies such as Menzies Aviation and Centrica following the deplorable fire-and-rehire tactics employed by British Airways, which are now being enforced. Will he tell the House whether he thinks it fair that an employer can force an employer on to reduced terms and conditions or face redundancy? Why is that illegal in so many European countries?
We are in constant conversation with Rolls-Royce and other employers, quite rightly. The sector will be impacted for between three and five years. It is right that companies should be able to right-size their businesses and, as the Secretary of State referred to, have a constructive dialogue with their employees about how they arrive at that right size. The Government’s position is to support the industry with more than £8.5 billion of support through the covid pandemic.
Businesses in Scotland have thrived under devolution with the support of the Scottish Government, who are better able to provide tailored policies specifically for Scotland. An independent economics research organisation based at the University of Warwick published figures just yesterday that show that Brexit had already cost Scotland an estimated £736 a head last year alone. With uncertainty over future funding streams such as the so-called prosperity fund, which we were promised details of two years ago, how does he think that the greatest threat to devolution in its history—the current power-grab by Westminster—presents continued membership of the United Kingdom for business and the people of Scotland as a good option?
I have weekly calls with my counterparts in the devolved Administrations, including the Minister for economy and fair work in Scotland. The most successful market is the UK internal market—that is without doubt. That is what the Scottish Government should support. It is a shame that my officials, working with officials from Northern Ireland and, of course, Wales, can move forward, yet the Scottish Government chose to withdraw their officials back in March. I urge my colleague from the SNP to ask the Scottish Government to reintroduce those officials to the system. We would thrive as a United Kingdom.
To protect and rebuild the local economy of Aberdeen and the north-east of Scotland, we need huge investment from the UK Government in the hydrogen economy, carbon capture and underground storage, and an energy transition zone all through an oil and gas sector deal. Will the Minister confirm that his Government intend to sign off an oil and gas sector deal this calendar year—yes or no?
It is a manifesto commitment of this Government to deliver an oil and gas sector deal, and we are working with the sector. My brilliant colleague, the Minister with responsibility for energy, has been engaging constantly with the sector to ensure it can take the opportunities that are before it in offshore wind generation and all sorts of other areas. Of course, hydrogen will be incredibly important to the energy White Paper, which we will publish in the autumn, as the Secretary of State set out.
Research and Development
The Government are committed to making the UK a world-leading science superpower, and are increasing Government spending on R&D to £22 billion by 2024-25. We have announced seven successful projects from all four nations of the UK, which will receive £400 million of funding through our strength in places fund. Our ambitious R&D roadmap commits us to publishing a place strategy in the autumn that goes even further.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for all the work you have done to keep people like me engaged in the parliamentary process.
The Minister has a business background, so does she not realise that if she could persuade the Chancellor of the Exchequer to follow Mrs Thatcher’s example and introduce a windfall profit tax on people who have made a lot of money—the gambling industry and companies such as Amazon—that could be ploughed into research and development? Universities will go through a tough time in the coming months and years, so let us put real resources into research and development as never before.
I add my thanks to your team, Mr Speaker.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have a taskforce that has been looking into how to support universities. It has enabled us to set up a stability fund, which will enable R&D to continue in our institutions. In addition, in the roadmap, which contains the place strategy, we are talking about lots of levelling up. We are making sure we have the opportunity to take this forward and become the science superpower that we all want to be.
Covid-19: Events Sector
As the Prime Minister announced last week, from 1 October the Government intend to allow audiences to return to stadiums around the country. Conferences and other business events can also recommence in a covid-19 secure way, subject to the outcome of pilots.
The Government are really missing the point on this. The thing about events, meetings, conferences, exhibitions and wedding receptions is that they are organised and regulated, and yet they are more constrained at the moment than pubs and restaurants. Rather than talk about pilots and permitted venues that are not defined in the guidance, will the Government look at a faster and fuller opening of the sector before October?
We took evidence from a number of areas, including the wedding industry, and we have the “Safer Events: A Framework for Action” White Paper. All those people will feed into that discussion. Weddings are essentially parties, and we need to ensure that they can be regulated in a covid-19-secure way. I will meet the wedding industry associations again tomorrow to continue discussions in this area.
Research and Development
The Government are now implementing their ambitious R&D roadmap, published earlier this month, reaffirming our commitment to increasing public R&D spending to £22 billion by 2024-25 and ensuring the UK is the best place for scientists, researchers and entrepreneurs to live and work.
I appreciate the recent announcements, but can the Minister reassure us that all universities will be able to access those loans, with freedom to invest in line with local priorities? Will she take a look at the proposals from the new Whittle laboratory in Cambridge, which needs to match the already secure £23.5 million in private sector funding to develop the first long-haul zero-carbon passenger aircraft?
I give my assurance that one of the things we are addressing in the roadmap is ensuring that we become a science superpower. Within that, we are levelling up across the whole of the country. I am committed to making the workplace diverse and ensuring that we have a culture that embraces that throughout the whole of country. We will ensure that UK scientists are appreciated and rewarded.
The Government have provided unprecedented support to businesses and individuals. We are doubling the number of jobcentre work coaches, spending £32 million to recruit National Careers Service careers advisers and creating hundreds of thousands of new subsidised jobs for young people throughout the UK.
I thank the Minister for her answer, but my question is about the job retention scheme and employment levels. Given that some employers will be paid to retain workers who are never going to be made redundant, some of the job retention bonus scheme will be a dead loss. Would it not be a more effective use of public money to use some of these funds to continue to pay the wages of workers hardest hit and to provide some support to some of the 3 million households that have been excluded throughout this crisis from any help from this Government?
We are giving a whole range of support to everybody, as the hon. Member will know, through a lot of schemes. In fact, 9.4 million jobs have been supported through the coronavirus job retention scheme. As the scheme winds down, we will be making it more flexible so that people can return to work part time. We are also offering £1,000 to employers for each furloughed employee who is kept on until the end of January 2021.
Life Sciences and Vaccines
The Government are investing £93 million to set up the UK’s first dedicated Vaccines Manufacturing and Innovation Centre in Harwell. We are also investing £38 million in a rapid deployment facility, which will allow vaccine manufacturing at scale to commence from later this year.
The Government have stated that they are interested in creating a sovereign manufacturing capability in the north. An opportunity exists in Ulverston in my constituency to build a bioscience cluster, with deep collaboration with local universities. Using this site for therapeutic vaccine manufacturing would enable partnership with GlaxoSmithKline, which is already based in Furness, and it would preserve and create local jobs and skills, and be a great result for the north and the UK as a whole. Would my right hon. Friend meet the key partners to this project to see whether we might be able to take it forward?
For many of my constituents who work in Greater Manchester life sciences and in the Cheshire life sciences corridor, the Government’s drive to increase research and development into vaccines is really important. Recognising the importance of this to our local economy, what are the Government doing to increase and develop the strengths of life sciences in the Greater Manchester area?
I can confirm to my hon. Friend that, of course, the Government strongly support the growth of the life sciences sector in the north-west, which employs about 26,000 people. We have made a significant strategic investment in the Medicines Discovery Catapult at Alderley Edge to boost R&D.
Covid-19: Support for Business
In consultation with businesses, business representative groups, trade unions, Public Health England and the Health and Safety Executive, my Department has published comprehensive workplace guidance to ensure businesses can operate in a covid-secure manner, keeping both their workers and customers as safe as possible.
As my right hon. Friend will know, 2.7 million self-employed people have accessed over £7.8 billion of grants from the self-employed income support scheme. The scheme has been extended, and individuals will be able to claim a second and final grant when the scheme reopens for applications on 17 August.
I thank the Secretary of State for finding a way to reopen the beauty sector, which employs so many women across the country. When I paid a visit to the Malvern Spa to celebrate its reopening last weekend, I was told that it has capacity now for only 15 spa days, rather than 40, because of the square footage rules that his Department has set out. Will he look urgently at reviewing those, because it is a very spacious premises?
The coronavirus vaccine taskforce set up in my Department under the excellent leadership of its chair, Kate Bingham, has been making good progress. The Government have supported the vaccines being developed at Oxford University and Imperial College and have now secured access to three different vaccine classes, as well as a treatment containing covid-19 neutralising antibodies. We are also investing, as I said earlier, in vaccine manufacturing capacity in the UK, and the taskforce is doing all it can to ensure that the United Kingdom gets access to a safe and effective vaccine as soon as possible.
Well, that is a very welcome announcement, but I draw the Secretary of State’s attention to the tsunami of job losses now facing us. What industry needs right now is orders to get the lines running. That is not just for the big companies, but the whole supply chain. Does he accept the role of Government, not just as regulator and funder, but also as customer? Too often, the public sector, the civil service, local government and the police, fire and ambulance have, frankly, let British industry and British workers down, claiming they are bound by so-called EU rules. Now we are coming out of the EU, will he get going, shake up the civil service, put British industry first, get the orders out there and get the production lines moving?
I am delighted to assure my hon. Friend that the Government are, as he knows, determined to ensure the rapid expansion of the offshore wind manufacturing supply chain. We have committed to 40 GW of offshore wind by 2030, and I fully agree with him that the north-east region is critical to that development. I know the project to which he is referring, and officials and myself are looking closely at its viability.
The non-payment of the national minimum wage in Leicester garment factories was shocking, but unfortunately unsurprising. Exploitation in the garment industry has been extensively reported for years, including in a 2019 Environmental Audit Committee report. The cases we know about are likely to be the tip of the iceberg. Given that these abusive working practices are not only criminal, but a threat to public health, will the Secretary of State tell the House what steps he has taken to escalate enforcement in light of the covid-19 pandemic?
The hon. Gentleman raises an incredibly important point, and I think we have all been appalled by what we have read and heard. He will know that the National Crime Agency is leading investigations right now into the current set of allegations. He will also know that a pilot operation was run in autumn 2018, bringing together a whole range of agencies. In the past 18 months, there have been more than 200 investigations. I confirm to him that the enforcement of the minimum wage is something that HMRC investigates, and in 2019-20 it has issued across the country 1,000 penalty notices.
As my hon. Friend will know, in June 2020 we announced a support package to enable universities to continue their vital research. Universities will be required to use some of that funding for research normally funded by medical research charities. We are continuing to look at this situation and we hope to engage closely with charities to develop an even more robust package.
I am delighted to join my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in commending Tom Hunt and Baggy for their pioneering work. She knows that tackling carbon emissions and improving air quality go hand in hand. We are taking action to address both, particularly with the 300,000 ultra low emission vehicles registered in the UK, and we are also providing new funding for vehicle charging infrastructure.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight this issue and I share a lot of his concerns, but it is wrong to suggest that we are not doing anything. From autumn this year, we are providing a package of low-interest loans with long payback periods, supplemented by a small element of grant, to cover up to 80% of the universities’ income losses from international students. The money that is being pumped into our further education deals precisely with the point that he raised, and we are continuing to do that.
My right hon. Friend raises an important point. Of course we recognise the valiant contribution that the sector makes to the UK economy. We are working closely with the sector to pilot the reopening of conference centres, with a view to full socially distanced reopening from 1 October, subject of course to continuing to make progress.
I thank my hon. Friend for that question, because it goes to the heart of what we are doing as a Government. We already have more than 460,000 UK jobs in low-carbon businesses and their supply chains. Those are green-collar jobs and our research and development is totally committed to expanding those opportunities, whereby we want to reach 2 million green jobs by 2030. It is my conviction that coastal communities such as the one he represents will fully benefit and be in a place where they can reap the rewards of our investment in the green economy.
The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the key importance of the aviation sector, and the Government are supporting aerospace and its aviation customers with more than £8.5 billion, as part of our measures to support the overall economy. I understand that Airbus has drawn down £500 million on the corporate finance facility, and of course the Secretary of State and the ministerial team are happy to engage with him and his constituents on this important matter.
I already have one week of holiday plans and not in her constituency, sadly, but we all need to get out there to visit pubs and restaurants and cafés, which are the heart of our communities. From what I have seen, they are very much adhering to the covid-secure guidance, and that is how we will all enjoy summer safely.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, we have been supporting the economy across the United Kingdom, to the tune of £160 billion of additional funding announced by the Chancellor. If the hon. Gentleman would like to engage with my ministerial team on particular issues, I would be very happy about that.
Like my hon. Friend, I am a firm believer in the Union—in one United Kingdom. The proposals we set out in the UK Internal Market White Paper are all about supporting jobs, protecting businesses and livelihoods, and encouraging investment across the whole UK. I hope that all colleagues across the House will write in support of that as part of the consultation.
First, I congratulate the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper) on obtaining this urgent question and demonstrating that persistence pays off.
The BBC has for decades played a vital role in this country’s cultural and civic life, and that has never been more true than during the last few months. During an unprecedented global crisis, it has helped to counter disinformation and share factual information about the coronavirus pandemic, while reinforcing important public health messaging. It has been a constant source of entertainment. It has helped to fundraise for charities through “The Big Night In”, which the Government match funded pound for pound, and it has helped countless families across the UK to educate their children from home through services such as BBC Bitesize.
The BBC has also been a source of comfort to many during this pandemic, and none more so, perhaps, than those elderly citizens who have been forced to shield and stay at home and who are sadly most at risk of experiencing loneliness and isolation as they do so. That is why we welcomed the BBC’s initial decision at the beginning of the lockdown to continue to grant the licence fee concession to the over-75s, and it is why we were deeply disappointed when the BBC board announced earlier this month that it would be ending that concession from 1 August. As a result, four out of five of those previously eligible for a free TV licence will now need to pay. That is a decision for the BBC, but the Government regret the approach that it has taken.
In the 2015 funding settlement—a settlement that was widely considered to be a generous one and which the director-general said was a strong deal for the BBC—we agreed with the BBC that responsibility for the over-75s concession would transfer to it in June 2020. The BBC agreed to have both the policy decision and the funding responsibility. That reform was subject to public discussion and debated extensively during the passage of the Digital Economy Act 2017. During those discussions and the passage of that legislation, Parliament agreed that the future of the over-75 concession and how and when it would be implemented was entirely a matter for the BBC.
The Government’s view is that the BBC should be doing more, given the generous settlement that it received. During the 2015 settlement, we gave the BBC a number of things in return for taking on this responsibility. We closed the iPlayer loophole. We committed to increasing the licence fee in line with inflation, and we reduced a number of other BBC spending commitments. To help with financial planning, we agreed to provide phased transitional funding over two years to gradually introduce the cost to the BBC.
It is now essential that the BBC, having taken the decision to end the concession, gets the implementation of the change right and is not heavy-handed in its approach. While lockdown may be easing, older people across the country still face many challenges and still rely on their TV as much as they did a few weeks ago. The BBC can and should therefore do more to support older people, and it should look urgently at how it can use its substantial licence fee income to support older people and deliver for UK audiences of all ages.
As the national broadcaster, the BBC has a duty to represent all of the nation—both its youngest and oldest citizens, no matter where they live—and I am aware that many people have expressed concerns about cuts to regional programming as well as the BBC’s recent announcement of staffing reductions. Let me be clear that both operational and editorial decisions are a matter for the BBC. It is an independent body and the Government rightly have no say over the day-to-day decisions that it makes on programming, staffing or the administration of the licence fee, but as I have said, including during a recent Adjournment debate, the Government believe that the BBC must represent all of Britain. We set clear targets for news and current affairs and the need to represent all parts of the UK and the charter as part of the BBC’s mission and public purposes. It is for the BBC to meet these and Ofcom to hold it to account on doing so. That means engaging and reporting on local issues across our diverse communities, not just reflecting the views of the metropolitan bubbles of London and Manchester.
While the BBC remains operationally and editorially independent from the Government, we will continue to push it on these issues so that we can ensure that the BBC remains closer to the communities that it serves.
The BBC licence fee exists to give the BBC protection from political interference. The BBC should not be making decisions on welfare. That is the role of the Government. Last year, the BBC chairman said that
“the licence fee is at the heart of what we do. It establishes a direct relationship between us and the public and makes absolutely clear that our job is to serve them”—
and yet here we are.
From 1 August, the BBC will fund free licences only for people over 75 who receive pension credit, but two-fifths of people who are entitled to the benefit—about 1.2 million pensioners—are not receiving it. Some do not know how to claim, many struggle to apply and others feel embarrassed about requiring help. Is the BBC really to become a de facto arm of the Department for Work and Pensions?
Let us be absolutely clear about how we have ended up here. It was the Conservative Government who took the decision in 2015 to stop funding for free licences, and it was the Conservative Government who forced responsibility on to the BBC board to make the decision on the future of the concession. The Government should never have asked the BBC to take that on, and the BBC should never have accepted it. Continuing with the licence fee scheme for the over-75s would have cost £745 million—a fifth of the BBC’s budget. To meet that cost without Government funding, the BBC would have had to close all of the following: BBC 2, BBC 4, the BBC News channel, BBC Scotland, Radio 5 live and local radio stations, as well as many other cuts and reductions. As it happens, the means-tested scheme will still cost the BBC about £250 million, and to help meet that cost it has recently announced hundreds of job losses and programming cuts.
The BBC has proved invaluable to the British public during the covid lockdown through its trusted news, entertainment and home schooling resources. Does the Minister agree? Age UK says that it firmly believes it is the Government’s responsibility to look after vulnerable older people, not the BBC’s. Age UK also thinks the Government should take back responsibility for a benefit that was introduced to tackle pensioner poverty. Will he do that? The Conservative Government have been responsible for these secret deals with the BBC that have significantly diminished its ability to serve the British public, so when the licence fee negotiations start in earnest next year, will he commit to a wholly transparent process involving Ofcom?
The decisions taken at the time of the licence fee settlement in 2015 were the result of lengthy negotiations with the BBC, in which it received a number of concessions that it strongly asked for. In return for those, it agreed that it would take on responsibility for the maintenance of the over-75s free TV licence concession. It was up to the BBC how it decided to take that forward. A number of options were suggested and consulted on by the BBC. The Government were disappointed, as I say, that it decided to remove the concession completely. There were a number of other ways it could have addressed it that would have saved the BBC money but would have at least maintained some help for those aged over 75. But, as I said, that was a matter for the BBC. Obviously, we will continue to discuss it with the BBC. In particular, we will be having discussions over the next licence fee settlement in 2022. We will ensure that there is an opportunity for Ofcom, and others, to have an input into that, but that is still some way off. In the meantime, as somebody who was responsible for those negotiations, I believed the licence fee settlement was a good outcome. The BBC made public the fact that it thought it was a good outcome, too.
This crisis has shown that local programming is more important than ever, both for essential information and for closeness of community. Is it not now vital that quality TV and radio at a local level remains at the heart of BBC output, including through programmes such as the 6.30 regional news, “Politics South” and “Inside Out”, in all regions?
I agree with my right hon. Friend. The charter of the BBC makes it plain, as one of the five public purposes, that it is the responsibility of the BBC to reflect, represent and serve the diverse community of the UK’s nations and regions. Ofcom, as he knows, lays down a number of requirements on the BBC and, indeed, on other public service broadcasters, as to how it does that. It is up to the BBC. I have made it clear before, and I do so again today, that I regard the BBC’s news and current affairs reporting of events taking place outside London and in the regions as an absolutely central part of the BBC’s purpose. I very much hope that it will continue to bear that in mind.
I congratulate the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper) on securing this urgent question, which goes to the heart of Members’ concerns about cuts to BBC funding, and the breaking of a promise to millions of pensioners and their families. This issue goes back to the charter and licence fee settlement that was made with the Conservative Government in 2015, when the Government made the BBC an offer it could not refuse: “Take on responsibility for paying the licence for the over-75s, or we will slash funding even further and consider removing the licence fee altogether.”
Since then, in this licence period alone, the BBC has lost £800 million in funding, even before bearing the cost of licences for the over -75s. Members may ask why the BBC accepted the settlement. Is it merely a coincidence that the then chair of the BBC Trust, Rona Fairhead, was later elevated to a peerage as the noble Baroness Fairhead, and took the Conservative Whip a short time later?
The Conservatives made a manifesto promise to maintain the licence for the over-75s. They broke it. Instead, they passed responsibility to the BBC, knowing that it would never be able to afford that responsibility. Since then, they have tried to blame the BBC at every turn, for every cut of every service, and for every redundancy. No doubt they will try to blame the BBC when bills start landing on pensioners’ doorsteps in August and September.
The Conservative Government themselves were party to this deal, so does the Minister not accept that the Government should own some of the blame? Can the Minister tell the House, as the hon. Lady asked, why the BBC should be responsible for implementing the Government’s social policy?
Cuts to the BBC, as everyone in this Chamber knows, are not merely about spending; they are about undermining the corporation’s independence. The Conservative Government are, at best, relaxed about reducing the BBC’s budget, because it is the only lever they have to control the BBC’s capacity to ask tough questions on behalf of the British people.
Ministers knew that making the BBC shoulder that responsibility in full would lead to cuts equivalent to the closures of BBC2, BBC4, the news channel, the Scotland channel, Radio 5 live and Sports Extra, and a number of local stations. Indeed, the cuts to BBC news reporting and all the redundancies in local and national news, at a time of national crisis, when the BBC is more valued and essential than ever, are a direct result of the Government’s failure to maintain their election promises.
The Minister will have seen evidence from Age UK, detailing how millions of pensioners have relied on their televisions for company, especially during the pandemic. What advice would he give to a pensioner who will face the heart-breaking choice in the coming months between turning off their TV for good, or forgoing other basics such as food or heating? That is the reality of the Government’s broken promise to 4 million pensioner households.
I remind the hon. Gentleman that at the time of the licence fee settlement in 2015, the Government were still having to put right the mess that they had inherited, due to the financial profligacy of the previous Labour Government. Everybody had to play a part in that, and the BBC was included. It was a tough negotiation. I call tell the hon. Gentleman— I was part of the negotiations—that Baroness Fairhead strongly argued the case for the BBC, and the outcome was satisfactory to the BBC and the Government, as was made clear by the BBC at that time. The manifesto commitment to maintaining the licence fee during the 2015 Parliament was maintained, which is why the exemption is only now being removed in 2020.
Any pensioner on a low income will continue to get a free TV licence if they are in receipt of pension credit. Age UK has rightly drawn attention to the fact that quite a number of pensioners do not receive pension credit, even though they are entitled to do so, and one of the consequences of this move, which the Government would welcome, might be an increase in the take-up of pension credit.
I welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box. He has always spoken sensitively about this subject and has great experience. He will be aware that the BBC received a generous settlement of about £200 million, whereas the concession for pension credits will cost £250 million, and to keep things as they are would cost £750 million, so we are well aware that the BBC was not fully funded. Returning to regional news, the concerns that I and many Members have is that many of our constituents rely on regional news to deliver locally for them, and 450 out of 3,000 jobs are at risk of being lost. Does the Minister agree that if the BBC wants to win friends in this place, it should look after the regions?
I thank my hon. Friend. He is right about the cost of maintaining free TV licences for all over-75s, which is already approaching £750 million and would go on rising. Any Government—and, indeed, the corporation—were going to have to consider that. On his point about regional programming, as we made clear in the recent debate held by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), it is a matter for the BBC, but regional programming is essential. I am pleased that some of the fears expressed about cuts to regional political and current affairs coverage did not materialise, but I am still concerned at the level of cuts that are taking place, and we will be watching carefully to ensure that the BBC continues to fulfil its obligations on regional coverage.
Tory Ministers’ feigned shock at BBC job cuts and at old people being pursued for TV licence payments is nothing but humbug. Everyone knew that this would be the result of the last charter deal, cooked up by the Government and BBC director-general Tony Hall. The Government demanded that free TV licences for the over-75s—which should be a social provision—be funded by the BBC, and the BBC was unwise enough to knuckle under and accept. The BBC could not afford it, and I warned at the time that it would lead to swingeing BBC job losses and pensioners being pursued through the courts for licence payments—a double whammy of cruelty, especially during covid. Lord Hall is off to another lavishly paid job, but pensioners across the country will have to find the cash to pay for licences they cannot afford, while hundreds of staff at the BBC now face redundancy as a direct result of this dreadful Tory deal. The Government need to take back control of pensioner licence provision. Will they do so?
First, there were a number of options available to the BBC for how to reduce the costs of the over-75s exemption. The BBC chose to abolish it in its entirety, but there were options, including providing it at a later age, reducing it to a proportion of the licence fee or restricting it to households that only contained over-75-year-olds. It has always seemed to me extraordinary that a banker at Goldman Sachs who happens to have his grandmother living in his home can claim a free TV licence. There were a number of options, and I personally regret that the BBC chose to go ahead with the total abolition. The hon. Gentleman talked about hard-up pensioners. Pensioners on low incomes will continue to receive a free TV licence if they are in receipt of pension credit, so those who are most likely to be unable to afford it will not be required to pay.
Last month, senior executives at the BBC took it upon themselves to remove episodes of “Little Britain” and other comedies from its iPlayer platform because of concerns that some characters might now be considered to be offensive. Does my right hon. Friend understand the anger of fans of these programmes that executives at their state broadcaster whose salaries they pay have made this censorious decision and effectively made a value judgment about them for continuing to enjoy those programmes?
That is a matter for the BBC, obviously, but I share my hon. Friend’s surprise that the BBC decided that “Little Britain” was so unacceptable. Certain programmes that were extremely popular in the ’60s, for instance, would now be regarded as wholly unacceptable, which not just the BBC but all of us need to remain sensitive to, but there is a risk that removing certain programming that is still widely enjoyed—it was even suggested to me at one stage that “Fawlty Towers” might be removed because it gave offence to people—is taking political correctness too far.
The announcement of further job cuts at the BBC is yet another blow for public service broadcasting. There are many BBC freelance workers in Vauxhall with jobs on important TV and radio shows. Some of them have had long-term contracts with the BBC for many years, and they are taxpayers and licence fee payers, but they have not benefited from the same support that other taxpayers have rightly received from the Government, simply because of the type of contract they are on. As a result, many are contemplating leaving the media industry altogether, which in my view is a tragic loss of talent and experience. Given the immense challenges these freelancers face, will the Minister make representations to the Chancellor and persuade him to fill the gaps and end the one-size-fits-all approach to withdrawing these schemes?
In the case of the BBC, the majority of its staff are of course paid with public money and therefore were not eligible for furlough, but there are some BBC employees who work for the commercial arm, some of whom were furloughed, and, as the hon. Lady says, there are a number of freelancers. The Government have sought to provide support to freelancers through the self-employment income support scheme, and of course for those who fall outside that there is the availability of universal credit. Nevertheless, I am aware that there are a number of freelance workers, not just for the BBC but across the media, who are finding it difficult, and of course we continue to look to see what help can be given to them.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. It is important to bear in mind that although the BBC is under financial pressure like many other organisations, it benefits from the licence fee and other income to the tune of around £5 billion. It is certainly the case that there are ways of achieving efficiencies and savings in the spending of that budget, which would perhaps have meant that some of the more difficult decisions, such as the removal of free licences for the over-75s, could at least have been mitigated.
Research by the Library has revealed that more than 3,000 households in my constituency may lose access to their free TV licence as a result of the Government’s deal with the BBC. The charity Age UK described axing the free TV licence as
“a kick in the teeth for millions of over 75s who have had a torrid time during this crisis.”
What message does the Minister have for pensioners forced to take difficult decisions between their television and other essentials such as food and heating?
I would say to anybody facing that kind of choice that they will almost certainly be entitled to pension credit, and if they are not currently in receipt of it, they should perhaps look to see whether they are eligible to receive it. It is the case that a number of pensioners on low incomes do not currently receive it. One of the consequences of this is that the BBC will write to every single one of the over-75s to inform them that they are potentially still eligible for a free TV licence if they are on pension credit, so this will perhaps be the best marketing tool for pension credit that we have ever seen.
Many of my constituents and people across Lincolnshire are dismayed at the BBC’s decision to scrap free licences for the over-75s. Can my right hon. Friend assure me and my constituents that he has engaged with the BBC and made those concerns very clear on behalf of many of our constituents?
I do not think the BBC will have been in any doubt about the Government’s view. I and the Secretary of State have regular discussions with the chairman and the director-general. I fully recognise that this was a very difficult choice for the BBC—it represented a massive amount of money to maintain free TV licences in their entirety—but, as I said earlier, I think there were other options available that would have made this at least a little less painful for those who now are going to be required to pay the full cost of the TV licence, having previously not had to pay anything at all.
The Government have been completely disingenuous about this issue all along. Let us be honest: the BBC was given no choice but to take on responsibility for TV licences. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) is absolutely right: the Government should not be outsourcing their welfare policy or, indeed, their manifesto promises to the BBC. Funding for the BBC’s UK public services is now around 24% less in real terms than if the cost of the licence fee had risen with inflation from 2010, and the BBC is facing £800 million of cuts. Given all that, does the Minister seriously expect that the BBC would be able to keep funding free TV licences for all over-75s? Can he tell us that with a straight face?
I can say to the hon. Gentleman that the BBC asked for a number of concessions—the unfreezing of the licence fee, to which he referred, the closing of the iPlayer loophole and other saving reductions —that resulted in its income increasing. The cost of giving free TV licences to those aged over 75, which was introduced only in 2008, was rising inexorably and would soon be approaching £1 billion. I have to ask all Opposition Members whether, if they believe that the free TV licences should continue, they are committing that a future Labour Government, or even a future Liberal Democrat Government, might one day pay to restore them, at a cost, by then, of well over £1 billion.
I associate myself with the comments of my colleagues who have raised the prospect of job cuts at regional news services. At a time when local media are struggling, we need trusted local news services, which keep places such as Cumbria informed, provide companionship and hold those in power to account. In a place like Cumbria, any cuts will fall disproportionately on the excellent local teams, because there are so few people there already. Does my right hon. Friend the Minister agree that salami-slicing such organisations will help no one, including the BBC if it wants to meet its public service remit?
I agree with my hon. Friend. I have discussed the proposed reductions with the director for England and the director of nations and regions for the BBC. It is obviously a matter for them, but in my view although the BBC may have to find savings across its budget, that does not mean that every area of expenditure should be reduced. There are areas in which the BBC could save more and there are areas where any cuts would have a damaging effect. I fear that regional coverage is in that latter category, so the BBC should prioritise it. We will continue to make that clear to the BBC.
Almost 3,500 pensioner households in my constituency of Dundee West will be dramatically affected by the loss of TV licences. These are pensioners who receive one of the worst pensions in Europe, are likely to suffer from loneliness and disabilities, and are shielding as a result of covid-19. Surely this pandemic has shown us that television is not a luxury and the UK Government must recognise their public health responsibility to ensure that everyone receives vital information. Will the Minister assure my constituents that the UK Government will reverse the decision and provide the financial support to allow the concession to continue for those who can least afford it?
As I say, the matter was extensively debated during the passage of the Digital Economy Act 2017, and it was Parliament that agreed that the responsibility should be transferred to the BBC, so that is not likely to be reversed. It is a matter for the BBC as to how it goes about this. The Government are disappointed and believe that alternative options were available. I encourage the pensioners in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency to check whether they are entitled to receive pension credit and therefore to maintain a free TV licence. The exemption was introduced only 12 years ago, at an age that was relatively arbitrary at the time; it did not need to be set at that age and that is something else that the BBC might have considered.
My constituents are dismayed at the BBC’s decisions in respect of licences for over-75s and the proposed cuts to local coverage. Does the Minister agree that after having so recently received that “strong deal” in the renegotiation, the BBC ought to have raised this issue before it was three years into the period if it was not intending to continue with the obligations it has set out?
To give the BBC some credit, it did hold quite a lengthy consultation in which it put forward a number of options as to the future of the exemption. In my view, some of those other options were greatly preferable to the one that the BBC finally chose, which was the decision to abolish it in its entirety. I think the BBC could have done more. I am at least assured that the BBC has now said that every person over 75 who currently has a free TV licence will receive a letter: first, to point out that they can still receive one if they are on pension credit, and secondly, to say that no action will be taken in pursuit of the BBC’s requiring a licence until after those letters have been dispatched and received.
Thank you for granting this urgent question today, Mr Speaker. The TV licence and the services provided by the BBC have been a lifeline to many in my constituency of Newport West in recent months. Can the Minister tell me what discussions have taken place with the Welsh Government in recent weeks to ensure that Welsh regional programmes are maintained and my constituents are not penalised by the shabby approach to public broadcasting from this Government?
As my hon. Friend is aware, the issue of decriminalisation has been subject to a lengthy consultation. The Government are now considering the very large number of responses to that consultation and we will bring forward our proposals once we have completed that consideration.
The Minister called on the BBC to do more to support older people, but perhaps he should start by putting his own house in order. More than 1 million of the poorest pensioners missed out on £2.5 billion of pension credit in 2017-18 and now they will not get a free TV licence either. Instead of his crocodile tears about the cuts that the Government have forced on the BBC, will the Minister be asking the BBC to run regular public information announcements at peak times, encouraging people to apply for pension credit?
The hon. Lady raises a good point, in that some of the communications that the BBC had promised to carry out are now going to be impossible due to social distancing, so we will be looking to the BBC to run public information campaigns of that kind. As I said, the BBC is also sending a letter to every single person over 75, telling them what their options are.
I sympathise with my right hon. Friend the Minister, who is being asked to simultaneously ensure that the BBC spends more money on free licences and more money on programmes. Not only is that mathematically incompatible, it is not within his power at all. Does he agree that the real welfare issue is to ensure that poorer pensioners continue to receive the benefits of the BBC, which are important to many of them, and that therefore the practical way to help poorer pensioners is for both the BBC and Members of Parliament to ensure that as many as possible of those who are entitled to pension credit actually claim pension credit?
My right hon. Friend will know from the many times that he has stood here that being asked to do impossible, contradictory things is quite frequent. The point he makes is absolutely right. It is very important that all those people entitled to pension credit should take it up and I believe that one of the consequences of this matter is that that will be achieved.
More than 4,000 households in my constituency of Oldham East and Saddleworth no longer qualify for a free TV licence. That is nearly three out of four over-75-year-olds. There is a theme in the questions. We have already heard that more than 1 million pensioners eligible for pension credit do not claim it. Instead of hand-wringing and saying it is other people’s jobs to do it, what will the Minister do to ensure that those people who are eligible for pension credit receive it?
The Government seek to publicise pension credit availability as widely as possible, but the BBC has now said that it will write a letter to every single pensioner over 75 and I think that will have a greater effect in driving up pension credit than any other measure.
The coronavirus pandemic has meant that many of my constituents in North West Durham, particularly those shielding, many of whom are elderly, have been increasingly reliant on the television over the last few months. This weekend, I joined with my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) in calling on the BBC to look again at this cancellation for the over-75s. Will the Minister join us in that call today?
As I have said, the Government deeply regret the decision that was taken. I hope that the BBC will continue to consider it as we move into the next licence fee settlement. Obviously, discussions will take place around that, and we will look at what other options might be available to try to extend help not just to those aged over 75, but to other people as well, but that ultimately will be a matter for negotiation with the BBC.
The award-winning BBC programme “Inside Out” highlighted the devastating impact of mesh implants, without which this scandal could have gone on undiscovered for much longer. Now “Inside Out” is under threat. Does the Minister understand the link between the BBC’s rising costs and income cuts and the loss of high-quality local BBC journalists?
I share the hon. Lady’s admiration for “Inside Out”, which, as she said, did some extremely hard-hitting investigative programmes, which led to real change. I am encouraged that the BBC is maintaining “Inside Out” and is moving from, I think, three stories per episode to one story per episode over a longer time, so it will be a 30-minute programme. It is good that “Inside Out” will continue, but obviously any reduction in investigative journalism by the BBC is a matter of regret.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the BBC could have the capacity to make significant savings to its £5 billion of spend a year, and does he agree that greater transparency would go a long way to help identify those savings? A Government Department or a local authority needs to publish every invoice in excess of £500. Is it not wholly unfair and iniquitous that the BBC has simply refused to do that?
I agree with my right hon. Friend. Undoubtedly, there is scope for efficiencies and savings. One thing that the Government have done is fully open up the BBC to scrutiny by the National Audit Office, and I think that that has led to some efficiencies. I am encouraged by the conversation that I had very recently with the incoming new director-general, Tim Davie, who recognises that there is scope to seek efficiency savings and is committed to looking across the whole range of BBC activities to see how that can be achieved.
The Minister rightly recognises the BBC’s amazing covid service. I just want to put on record how invaluable BBC Bitesize has been to my six-year-old daughter and my long-suffering husband who has been home schooling her through the lockdown. Does the Minister recognise that the BBC is part of a much wider ecosystem in which it commissions a lot of independent production companies? We know that the creative sector is really suffering and that many jobs are in jeopardy, and does he recognise, therefore, that this continued pressure on BBC funding will put that wider revival of the creative arts sector, in terms of the independent sector, at risk?
I join the hon. Lady in thanking the BBC for all that it did to maintain educational programming during lockdown. As for the contribution that it makes to the independent production sector, she is also absolutely right. One thing that I have been concentrating on is trying to help the production sector get back into operation, and we have had frequent meetings with representatives to see how that can be achieved. I am delighted that most productions are now getting going again, but obviously maintaining and sustaining our production sector right across the country will remain a very important additional role for the BBC.
Over recent years, I would describe myself as having moved from being a friend of the BBC to being an extremely critical friend of the BBC, and I tend to think that, to some extent, it has lost its way. The director-general has today replied to a letter sent by the Blue Collar Conservatives group, in which he says that
“we will continue to deliver new programmes that represent and reflect modern Britain and the voices of the whole of the UK.”
I suggest to the director-general that the view from Cleethorpes is very different to that. Does the Minister agree that, instead of pandering to these groups and trying to seek new audiences, who perhaps will never remain with the BBC, it should actually provide a better service to its core audience and, again, review the over-75 issue?
I agree with my hon. Friend. In the service that the BBC provides across the UK, in all the different communities, it is absolutely essential that it tries to sustain support for the licence fee and does not just serve the metropolitan elite in London and Manchester. I am very much aware that communities like those in Cleethorpes are beginning to feel that the BBC is not providing sufficiently for them, and I hope the BBC will take that into account.
At the general election in 2019, the Conservative party manifesto stated:
“We recognise the value of free TV licences for over-75s and believe they should be funded by the BBC.”
Only months later, over 4.5 million elderly people learned that they are to lose their free TV licence. The question—many people want to know the answer—is: what did the Government do to try to save the free TV licence scheme? Is it now time to recognise that the free TV licence for over-75s is a public good and should be funded by the Government?
I absolutely stand by the wording of the 2019 manifesto. It remains the case that the Government recognise the value of these licences and believe that the BBC should have maintained them. We made that amply clear to the BBC. Ultimately, however, Parliament agreed that the decision should rest with the BBC.
I represent a heavily rural constituency, and I have been deeply concerned by recent BBC programming that portrays farming and the agriculture sector as either twee and backward or environment-wrecking vandalism. This is deeply wrong and misleading. With over 9,000 people over 75 years old in Brecon and Radnorshire, many feel deeply let down by the BBC at the moment. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the BBC needs to take a look at itself and ensure that it is giving every taxpayer value for money?
I am aware of some of the concerns that my hon. Friend refers to. Obviously it is not a matter for the Government to pass judgment on BBC programming, but it is possible for viewers to make their feelings known by complaining to the BBC and, if they remain unsatisfied, to take the matter to Ofcom.
Age UK has said that many older people on low incomes have told it that if they are to find £150 or more a year to pay for a licence fee, they will have to forgo other essentials or try to survive without a TV at all. Given that TV news is the only source of information for some older people, particularly during the current pandemic, what would the Minister propose as an alternative way of getting this vital information to those who will no longer be able to afford to watch telly?
I very much hope that those on low incomes will take up pension credit and so continue to be able to watch television, but of course there are other means. If people are anxious to obtain information, they can listen to any number of BBC radio channels and do not require to have a TV licence.
While the BBC is a valuable national institution, many in Stoke-on-Trent South are concerned about its archaic funding mechanism. In a world where subscription is becoming the norm, does my right hon. Friend agree that reform and identifying better ways to fund the BBC is well overdue?
I have considerable sympathy with the points that my hon. Friend makes. We are not yet at the point where we could consider moving to a subscription service, because a lot of people still rely on Freeview, which does not allow it. However, the way in which people consume television is changing so fast that it will increasingly lead to questions about the sustainability of the licence fee, and that will certainly be under consideration when we come to the next charter review.
Does the Minister understand that many of my constituents are fed up with the begging-bowl behaviour of the BBC, which seems to think that its pocket has no bottom to it, and increasingly frustrated by the political bias and the reckless spending of this organisation, with its £1 million-and-more contracts for presenters and the fact that it pays over 100 directors more than the Prime Minister? Will he undertake, first, to ensure that no pensioner who cannot afford the compulsory levy will be criminalised as a result of non-payment? In the longer run, will he look at how the BBC is funded so that we do not have this compulsory tax on people who increasingly get their entertainment elsewhere anyway?
I sympathise with the right hon. Gentleman. It was of course as a result of the most recent charter renewal that we now know how many people in the BBC are paid over £150,000 per year and who they are. But there will always be scope for change. If his constituents have complaints about political bias or any other content, I would encourage them to proceed those with the BBC and ultimately Ofcom. I can assure him that when we consider the long-term future, the licence fee will very much be a part of that consideration.
Many of my older constituents will be facing the double blow of being asked to pay more for the BBC while seeing the programmes they value the most and regional news cut back. Is it not time, and should it not be part of the charter review, to ask what licence fee payers want to see? Is it right that regional news programmes should face such a disproportionate burden of cost savings at the BBC?
As I indicated earlier, I am concerned at the extent of the reductions taking place in the regional programming budget. I do not think that savings should be spread equally, and there are other areas where greater savings could have been found. That is something we will continue to discuss with the BBC. I hope that the incoming director-general will also have a look right across the board to see what savings can be made and what areas to prioritise.
During the covid crisis, many people have relied on their local councils for information and support. Local news plays a vital role in both helping share that information and, rightly, holding local councils to account. The cuts of 450 jobs in regional news in England amount to a loss of one in six jobs. What consultation have the Government had with the BBC about the threat to the democratic process arising from these job losses?
I have discussed the implications of reductions with the director for England and the director for nations and regions at the BBC. However, I would draw attention to the BBC’s local democracy reporting service, which it put in place and funds 150 journalists precisely to address the hon. Member’s concern about how local councils in particular should be properly held to account and reported. The BBC has pledged to maintain that, and I hope it will continue to do so.
The licence fee was first introduced in 1946 largely to help fund television after the second world war. At that time, there was one channel and one broadcaster. The world has changed a great deal since then and we see new digital streaming services emerging on an almost daily basis. Following the Minister’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), will he assure the House that there will be a fundamental review of how the BBC is funded in time for its new charter in 2027?
I share my hon. Friend’s view that the landscape is changing so fast and there is a much more choice now available to viewers, and that should cause the BBC to look again at what it provides and consider those areas where public service content is still important and where, perhaps, in other areas it is no longer so necessary. That fundamental issue will be under consideration as part of our forthcoming public service broadcasting review. At the same time, we will also be talking to the BBC in detail, as part of the licence fee negotiations, about the funding it will require in the future.
Many of the assumptions around these negotiations—audiences are shrinking and the young are tempted away by Netflix—are contradicted by coronavirus. On the week that lockdown started, 94% of all Britons used it, as well as 86% of young adults. There have been a billion hits on iPlayer, and there were three million people on Bitesize the day it launched. In all, that makes up 24% of all online time, compared to 3% for Netflix. Does the Minister therefore share my dismay that the current round of cuts is hitting only band B and C journalists—the people producing the output that is keeping us all going—and that none of the management or higher bands are affected? Does he not agree that they should bear some of the burden, too?
Of course, one of the consequences of the lockdown was that viewing figures right across the board for both linear and online programming dramatically increased. However, I absolutely agree with the point the hon. Member makes. It is entirely a matter for the BBC as to where it finds savings, but I do believe that the journalists and reporters are providing an invaluable service in the regions. I certainly hope that the BBC will listen to the point she has made, because I have considerable sympathy with it.
All 61 games in next year’s rugby league world cup will be shown on the BBC—I just hope that rugby league fans from my patch who are over 75 will be able to afford their TV licence. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the BBC should look to continue doing what it does best and stop trying to do everything?
I do agree with my hon. Friend. As I said earlier, with the huge increase in choice, it may well be that there are areas in which it is no longer as important that the BBC provides programming content as it was before that choice extended to the extent that it has. I hope that is something the BBC will consider carefully, and I believe that the director-general, who will shortly be taking up his post, is intending to do that.