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BBC Licence Fee

Volume 703: debated on Thursday 18 November 2021

The Government have committed to maintaining the licence fee funding model for the duration of the charter period. Ahead of the next charter review process, we will undertake a detailed look at the TV licence model to ensure that it is fit for the future.

I warmly welcome the encouraging comments made by the Secretary of State, publicly and in the Chamber, on the BBC. There is the potential to cut or at least freeze the licence fee. It raises over £3.5 billion a year, much of which is used to create quality broadcasts. However, significant sums are used to squeeze out competition from the independent sector. This is the most regressive form of taxation, akin to the poll tax, so does she agree that a freeze or a cut would be not only a welcome boost to hard-pressed families, but a way of facilitating innovation within the BBC and encouraging competition from outside, creating a much more dynamic broadcast provision?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. My priority is to secure a settlement that delivers value for money for those hard-pressed constituents and for the licence fee payer, while making sure that the BBC can continue to provide those very high-quality services to which he just referred. I have been having constructive discussions with the BBC and I believe that we are close to reaching an agreement. I hope he understands that I am unable to comment further while negotiations are taking place and are ongoing.

When the Secretary of State is thinking about the future of the licence fee, will she talk to those in the independent sector that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned? Far from saying that they are being squeezed out, they will tell her that the BBC and the system we have of a mixed economy in our creative industries in this country are underpinned by the quality of the BBC. It exercises a gravitational pull that is the envy of the world. I know she thinks deeply about these things, but let me say that it should not be tinkered with just because of ideology; this should be a practical decision on her part.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and his comments. He is absolutely right; I do speak regularly to the independent sector, including Channel 4 and other bodies within the sector. I take his comments on board and hear what he is saying. The BBC is a beacon for Britishness—for all that is British; it is a beacon across the world for broadcasting excellence. But even the editors of the BBC and those who run the BBC accept that there have been some problems. They are being dealt with and that is part of the ongoing discussions. I know that he is particularly concerned about this, but I am sure that he appreciates that while negotiations are ongoing I am limited in what I can say.

In 2017, the BBC agreed to take over the funding of free TV licences for over-75s in return for increased income from increases in the licence fee and other commercial funding streams. The BBC’s behaviour since, in abolishing free TV licences, shows that it cannot be trusted. For its disgraceful treatment of pensioners, will the Secretary of State use the funding review in 2022 to scrap the licence fee altogether and let the BBC compete on a level playing field with other broadcasters?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. On the charter review, the mid-term review does begin—and we will start discussions—next year. The charter renewal, which is the point at which the future of the licence fee will be decided, does not take place until 2027. As I have just said, in those discussions the editorial perspective and a number of layers and things recently highlighted during the response to the Serota review are all under consideration, and my hon. Friend’s comments have been noted.

We have spent much of the past two weeks talking about standards in public office, and on this side of the House we care deeply about the independence and impartiality of the BBC. I know that the Secretary of State also cares, to the extent that she actually has the time to police the BBC political editor’s tweets and publicly rebuke her. Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be highly inappropriate for a Government Minister overseeing licence fee negotiations to seek to influence editorial decisions, including how the Prime Minister was interviewed, and use the threat of reducing BBC licence fee funding while doing so?

There were four elements to that questions. On the tweet, I did not rebuke Laura Kuenssberg, somebody who is perhaps the best in the business—very professional; a very polite tweet. Some people, particularly some Opposition Members, do seem to have a problem understanding a composition of 240 characters; the tweet was completely misinterpreted. I was not rebuking Laura Kuenssberg and I never would.