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BBC Licence Fee: Non-payment

Volume 753: debated on Tuesday 1 April 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to implement the decriminalisation of non-payment of the BBC licence fee.

My Lords, the Government recently supported an amendment to the Deregulation Bill concerning licence fee non-payment that sets out a duty for the Secretary of State to ensure a review of the TV licensing enforcement regime and introduces a new power for the Secretary of State to change the sanctions that apply for failing to have a TV licence. Whether to decriminalise non-payment will be considered in the light of the review.

My Lords, although I sympathise with the general argument, I wonder whether my noble friend thinks it is significant that some of the most enthusiastic legal and penal reformers in this area appear to be declared opponents of the BBC. Will the Government ensure that in guarding the interests of those who cannot afford to pay, they do not assist those who can afford to pay but simply want to evade the licence fee?

My Lords, in the review, the timing of any such change is crucial. The potential impacts on licence fee payers, the court system, the BBC and businesses must be considered. The review will be thorough. Clearly, it is very important that we achieve the best outcome for licence fee payers, particularly, as my noble friend said, those on lower incomes.

My Lords, the process we are talking about is contained in a Bill that has yet to appear in your Lordships’ House. Therefore, to some extent, we may be prejudging the final outcome. Nevertheless, as the Minister said, there is a duty, as the Bill is currently constituted, for the Secretary of State to hold a review. Since the review may report before the BBC charter review takes place, can the Minister confirm that no decision will be taken until after the licence and charter have been decided?

My Lords, the BBC charter review is the point at which the Government can consider all aspects of the BBC, including its funding. Indeed, the Government have yet to set out the timing, process and scope of the charter review. The review which would be part of the Deregulation Bill will be part of that process.

My Lords, in the event of a review, will it make sure that the differing procedures for criminal and civil law in Scotland are taken into due consideration? Given that this is an issue for the future, and that the Scottish Government have made rather glib comments in their White Paper on independence that they would adopt an identical licensing system for an independent Scotland, what contact have the Scottish Government made with Her Majesty’s Government with regard to the potential set-up costs and ongoing licensing operational costs of a separate system within Scotland in the event of independence?

My Lords, the review of the potential impacts and outcomes of decriminalisation must involve all parts of the United Kingdom, especially the devolved nations. As part of the process, it will be appropriate and necessary to consult the devolved Administrations on these matters. Of course, this legislation has not yet come to your Lordships’ House. I am sure there will be many considerations to be had.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former chairman of the BBC. Decriminalisation of non-payment of the licence fee is a very attractive idea. However, if you remove compulsory payment of the licence fee, you inexorably push the BBC into a ratings war and probably into subscription, which would inevitably be the death knell for the great tradition of public service broadcasting in this country. May I seek my noble friend the Minister’s reassurance that the Government will tread exceptionally carefully in examining this issue?

My Lords, clearly the tradition of public service broadcasting is very high in this country. As I said earlier, we will be looking at these matters in the review in the interests not only of the licence fee payer but of the BBC. It is interesting that the BBC has already said that it sees the amendment in the other place as an issue that should be discussed in the round. Indeed, the feeling is that this amendment appeared to be in the line of that.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former vice-chairman of the BBC. I strongly agree with the noble Lord who spoke just now, and with the need for a review—but it depends who is doing it. We have to be very careful that the review does not result in any real harm to the BBC which, in general, does not need any major changes.

My Lords, the important thing is that this is going to be a thorough review. It would not be wise of me to prejudge any of the decisions and discussions that will be had. The amendment would mean that the review would start within three months of enactment, and should then take no longer than 12 months. All the points that the noble Lord has raised will be part of that review.

Yes, but will my noble friend accept that it would be a sad day if the BBC, which has a reputation throughout the world, were undermined by the kind of underhand technical pressures which are put about? We really ought to recognise that, on these Benches, as on the Benches opposite, there is strong support for the independent BBC, funded as it is, and with sufficient funds to go on being an exemplar to the world.

My Lords, the new Clause 20 is about a discussion about whether there should be a civil monetary penalty regime. Without wanting to prejudge, I do not think that it is at all intended as an undermining of public service broadcasting. Clearly, the important thing is that the BBC remains independent; that is a key feature of our national life.

As it seems that there is still no absolute clarity as to the form that the review should take, may I make a suggestion—unauthorised from these Benches—that two critical people to include as part of the review process would be the noble Lords, Lord Grade and Lord Fowler?