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Deregulation Bill

Volume 760: debated on Monday 16 March 2015

Commons Amendments

Motion A

Moved by

That this House do not insist on its Amendment 38 and do agree with the Commons in their Amendments 38A and 38B in lieu.

38: Clause 60, page 46, line 45, at end insert—

“(14) Any regulations which are made under subsection (1) shall not take effect before 1 April 2017.”

Commons disagreement and amendments in lieu

The Commons disagree to Lords Amendment 38 and propose Amendments 38A and 38B in lieu.

38A: Clause 60, page 45, line 29, at end insert—

“(3) The Secretary of State must, before the end of the period of 3 months beginning with the day on which the review is completed, lay before both Houses of Parliament a report setting out the Secretary of State’s response to the review which must include—

(a) a statement as to whether the Secretary of State proposes to exercise the power to make regulations under section 60(1)(a) or (b), and (b) if the Secretary of State proposes to do so, an outline of the steps that the Secretary of State proposes to take in consequence and when those steps will be taken.”

38B: Clause 60, page 46, line 26, at end insert—

“(10A) Regulations under subsection (1) may not be made so as to come into force before 1 April 2017.”

My Lords, the Government are very clear that the review of the TV licence enforcement regime is a high priority. The overriding aim is to ensure that the system is appropriate, proportionate and fair, and that it represents the best value. This independent review, led by David Perry QC, will identify whether the current enforcement regime is appropriate and proportionate, and will ensure that there is a strong, evidence-based case for any potential changes to the TV licence enforcement regime. Due to the importance of this issue, the decision was taken to commence this review in advance of Royal Assent, while retaining a clause that commits the Government to carry out the review to ensure that this important piece of work is completed in a timely manner. The findings of the review, which will be complete by the end of June 2015, will be laid in both Houses of Parliament and presented to the BBC Trust.

The proposed amendments made in the other place in lieu of Lords Amendment 38 place additional reporting commitments on the Government, but still require that any changes to the licensing regime may not come into force before 1 April 2017. The amendments require the Government of the day to consider the report promptly and properly, setting out their response and the next steps to be taken within three months of the report’s completion. The Secretary of State must report to the House, setting out whether the Government propose to exercise the power to change the sanctions that apply to the failure to have a TV licence, and, if so, detailing the next steps to be taken and to what timetable.

As I have said, the proposed amendments also require that any regulations may not be made so as to come into force before 1 April 2017. We have always maintained that the report’s findings, and potential next steps, should be considered in the context of charter review, and this remains the case. The BBC’s current charter expires on 31 December 2016. The Government will not begin charter review until after the general election, and there is no set process for how the review should be conducted, or when. It will be for the Government of the day to take forward any further actions as they see fit.

We must not pre-empt the recommendations Mr Perry will make, particularly as the public consultation element of this work is currently ongoing. However, it remains the case that any next steps will need to be considered within the scope and timing of the charter review, and it will be for the next Government to ensure that the right enforcement regime for licence fee payers, the courts and indeed the BBC itself is in place. Our amendments ensure that the Government of the day will be committed to consider whatever recommendations David Perry QC wishes to make and to set out their intentions. Any changes that may be introduced must follow a clear timetable to be set out in the Government’s Statement, leading up to when the Secretary of State’s regulation-making power commences in April 2017. I beg to move.

My Lords, following the successful vote in your Lordships’ House a week or two ago, we are very pleased to see that the Government have accepted our important amendment to the Bill by including it in their own Motion A. What we now have before us is a cast-iron guarantee that any proposed changes to the licence fee enforcement regime will not take place until at least 1 April 2017 when the current licence fee settlement expires.

In particular, I would like to thank the noble Lords, Lord Stevenson, Lord Clement-Jones, and Lord Grade, for their invaluable support in this matter in signing the original amendment. This cross-party support demonstrated the broad strength of feeling on this whole issue. Any changes imposed before April 2017 would without doubt have had an impact on the BBC’s revenue. The consequences for the BBC’s funding need to be fully considered. Funding, along with everything else to do with the BBC, must be looked at in the context of the upcoming charter review and licence fee settlement.

We recognise that the David Perry QC review into licence fee enforcement is currently taking place, and I understand that the BBC is engaging with the review. Our amendment, now included in the Government’s Motion, does not affect the review’s recommendations or seek to change the outcome, but focuses on the timing of any implementation and ensures that the recommendation can lead into wider discussions that will affect all licence fee payers.

Having the commitment to the funding agreed at the last licence fee settlement in 2010 firmly confirmed means that the BBC can continue to plan and budget accordingly. As highlighted by the recent report of the National Audit Office, the BBC has made and continues to make significant efficiency savings throughout the organisation. To have reneged on the 2010 agreement would have meant an unpredictable future for many of the services and programmes that audiences value not only throughout this country but around the world. The inclusion of our amendment is a much needed reassurance for the broadcasting industry, and therefore the creative industries as a whole, as the current mixed funding broadcasting ecology is proving incredibly successful, and we hope that it will continue to thrive.

Make no mistake about it, we in the UK are incredibly lucky to have the BBC. The BBC is appreciated the world over as a key source of impartial, accurate and independent news, as a producer of quality original British drama and for investing in an array of services ranging from children’s programmes to increasing levels of innovation online. With this amendment, the current licence fee remains secure and the future of public service broadcasting can be planned and assessed in sufficient time and within the appropriate context.

In conclusion, as well as welcoming the Commons amendment, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, and his Bill team, for the helpful way in which they arranged a number of meetings to listen to our concerns and explain the position of the Government at the time.

My Lords, first, I draw attention to my interests in this matter as a former chairman of the BBC Board of Governors, the chairman of Pinewood Studios, an occasional—far too occasional—supplier of services to the BBC, and any other interests in the register.

It has been a very good experience putting this matter to rights, and I offer my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Howe. She and I have not always seen eye to eye on broadcasting matters over many years, but I am delighted to support the remarks she made earlier. I thank the Minister for reaching such a happy resolution on this matter, which means that when the starting gun goes on the charter review debate at the BBC after the election, we can start with a blank sheet of paper and no subsidiary issues that might get in the way. My thanks go to my noble friend and in particular to the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, for running with this matter. I have been very happy to support her, I continue to support her and I am very happy to support the government Motion.

My Lords, although the Minister tried to argue that all sides of the House were in agreement in support for the BBC, I am bound to say that the Government’s position on this issue, repeated at earlier stages of the debate in your Lordships’ House, was precisely the opposite. Had the Government prevailed, that would have had a very destabilising effect on the BBC. The Minister may speak now with the passion of the converted, but we heard him in Committee, we heard him again at Third Reading, and we will remember.

Over time, we have in this country established appropriate procedures for exercising effective but arm’s-length oversight of the BBC involving periodic reviews of the charter and licence and the regular fixing of budgets. The lesson to learn from this episode is that it would be very unwise for any political party to play around with the BBC mid-licence period for short-term political advantage.

We support the independent review being undertaken by David Perry QC. We do not know what the review will recommend on this important but rather narrow question of decriminalising penalties for not paying fines imposed by the courts. But we think it is right to wait for the outcome of the review before any decisions are taken for the simple reason that this would ensure that there will be no significant effect on BBC funding—up or down—before the end of the BBC’s current licence fee settlement, which is due to expire at the end of March 2017.

When the 2010 licence fee settlement was announced, the then Secretary of State said that it would provide,

“a full financial settlement to the end of the year 2016/17, with no new financial requirements or fresh obligations of any kind being placed on the BBC and/or licence fee revenues in this period”.

I am delighted that the Government are now prepared to honour that commitment and we support the amendment.

My Lords, I am most grateful to noble Lords who have spoken in this debate and indeed a number of other noble Lords who I have engaged with on this issue. We have, both in the Chamber and outside, had some very useful and constructive discussions. I am particularly grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, for her generous remarks welcoming the Government’s amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, said that he would remember. I know that if I look back I shall remember this Bill for a number of issues. We have had a fascinating journey, as it were, but on this particular issue we have provided the reassurance of timings. When we had the discussion I said that we were not very far away and I did not think that we were because by the time all the work was going to be done, we would be very close to 1 April. But we have reached that degree of certainty, which I know noble Lords were keen to achieve.

I am particularly pleased that the BBC is engaging in the review. That is what I would have expected from one of our great institutions. From all I hear, Mr Perry is dealing with this matter with the rigour that one would expect of a QC of his experience. That is also extremely important.

I am pleased that this has produced an opportunity for the alliance between my noble friend Lord Grade and the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, to break out in such good measure. But we are now in a position where we are able to consider decriminalisation with the sort of evidence that we needed. There has been a lot of feeling about this, but the review will mean that a thorough piece of work has been undertaken and with these government amendments we will be in a position for the next Government to come to a view and bring this matter forward in a proper fashion. We will have considered the matter properly.

This has been an important feature of your Lordships’ House. It may have been inconvenient to me at the Dispatch Box to lose by three votes, but we have probably found ourselves in a position where there is clarity for the BBC and certainty, which is very important. This has been a valuable exercise.

Motion agreed.