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BBC: Funding

Volume 714: debated on Tuesday 10 November 2009


Asked By

My Lords, under the terms of the BBC’s royal charter, the BBC will continue to be funded by the licence fee until the end of 2016. The Government are committed to reviewing the scope for funding mechanisms for post-2016 funding. In January 2007, the Government announced a six-year funding settlement, which began in April 2007.

I thank the noble Lord for his reply and declare an interest as an associate of an independent production company. We on these Benches support the licence fee and the BBC that it funds—an institution which is envied around the world except, perhaps, in the offices of News International. But does the noble Lord not agree that the BBC needs competition? If so, what is his response to the BBC Trust’s suggestion that when spectrum charging is introduced, the money accrued from the BBC should not go to the Treasury but be ring-fenced to fund public service broadcasting on channels other than the BBC?

My Lords, that is a perspective of some distance in the future. As I indicated, the settlement which has been reached on the licence fee and the use of the licence fee moneys in broad terms has been established until 2016. However, as I indicated in my original Answer, it will be necessary to look at the whole issue of funding mechanisms after that time. The noble Baroness has identified one area to which consideration could be given.

I am sure my noble friend agrees that public service broadcasting is one of the institutions and services in this country that we should cherish despite all the difficulties that can arise from time to time. However, does he also agree that if public service broadcasting were seen as being provided exclusively by the BBC, that would inevitably lead to its slow death? It is essential to ensure that the public service remit of other channels is not just protected but properly funded.

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend, and I indicated the Government’s openness on the issue with regard to the future. Certainly the concern about the continuance of high-level regional and local news on independent channels, which may need provision against the criteria of public service broadcasting, might lead to resources being made available for that particular dimension of independent broadcasting. As I indicated, these matters are somewhat beyond the present settlement.

My Lords, if the public are to be made more aware of the reasons for the cost of the licence, is it not time that the BBC was made much more accountable for its expenditure? Will the Government therefore consider including the BBC within the remit of the Freedom of Information Act so that we can know at all times how that money is spent?

My Lords, the BBC Trust is responsible for making the decisions of the BBC, and the strategies that it follows, open and accountable. My noble friend is right to identify that anxieties about the BBC’s expenditure are expressed from time to time. However, I am not at all sure that that debate is necessarily occluded through a lack of information. It seems to me that when people want to make points about the BBC, they succeed in getting access to the relevant information.

My Lords, does the Minister feel that the BBC’s news programmes, which use taxpayers’ money, have increasingly been used recently just to give newspaper headlines?

My Lords, it is important that progress is made on the issues of accountability. We are all too well aware of the fact that at present, when so many other institutions and activities in the country are under great constraint, the BBC enjoys a particular position with regard to the settlement on the licence fee. That is why the obligations on the BBC to respond constructively and openly are all the greater.

My Lords, would the Minister care to consider that one of the principal planks of the public service ethos is that there should be healthy debate on all sides of all major issues? When the views of all the major parties happen to be on one side of an issue, does not the BBC have an even greater responsibility to make sure that the other side has a good hearing?

My Lords, if the noble Lord is suggesting that the Flat Earth Society should have equal time with proponents of established scientific proof, I would have to disagree with him. He may be thinking about another scientific parallel that is not too far away.

My Lords, following on the question of my noble friend Lord Grocott about the extent of necessary competition and diversity in public service broadcasting, is it not important for the BBC to pursue the possibility of sharing its facilities and creating partnerships with other organisations to spread the benefit of the licence fee? Is that not a more creative way forward than reducing the licence fee or cutting aspects of the BBC’s remit?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. Given that the BBC has increased its use of independent production companies, it makes sense for it to cherish those who supply its programmes—and that means at times being prepared to consider partnerships and to be open about the possibilities of extending broadcasting opportunities through the judicious use of public money.

Have the Government ever recommended to the BBC that it should consider using a salary review body similar to the ones for doctors, dentists and other public service professionals?

That is a challenging concept, my Lords. The noble Baroness will be only too well aware that broadcasting is of a different genre from the professions that she has identified. I should imagine that anyone who reviews salaries would regard the task of reviewing those professions, difficult as that might be, as relatively straightforward compared with the issues of reviewing broadcasting.