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Free Television Licences

Volume 799: debated on Monday 15 July 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they had with the BBC on possible sources of funding before the BBC announced their plans to cease providing free television licences for those age 75 or older.

My Lords, I declare an interest in that I am over 75. Why have Her Majesty’s Government allowed—

My Lords, the Government discussed funding with the BBC in 2015. We agreed with the BBC that responsibility for the concession would transfer to it in June 2020. To help with financial planning, we agreed to provide phased transitional funding over two years so as gradually to introduce the cost to the BBC. The Government and the BBC agreed that this was a fair deal for the BBC. The future of the concession is therefore the responsibility of the BBC. The Government are clear that they are disappointed with its decision.

Does my noble friend the Minister recognise that, in effect, the BBC is victimising 5.5 million pensioners whose sole real leisure pursuit, unless they are really active, is to watch television and listen to radio? It is no source of help to them to be told that the poorest will be means-tested. Does my noble friend recollect in 1986 the Peacock report recommending that the BBC accept some advertising and sponsorship? Have the Government brought to the BBC’s attention the fact that £140 million of BBC income worldwide now comes from advertising and sponsorship? If that is good enough worldwide, why is it not good enough to be implemented at least to some extent in the United Kingdom?

My Lords, under the 2015 funding settlement it was agreed that responsibility would go to the BBC in return for an increase in its licence fee that was guaranteed and index-linked for five years. The director-general promoted that agreement and that is why we are disappointed with the BBC’s decision. As for the Peacock report, which as my noble friend said was 33 years ago, the funding model was considered then, but it was also considered again as part of the charter review. I am afraid to say to my noble friend that only 1.5% of those consulted agreed that having advertising on the BBC was a good idea.

My Lords, is not the real issue here whether we can believe the party opposite when it made a manifesto commitment to provide free television licences for those over 75 for the whole of the Parliament? The Minister has previously responded on this issue at great length and shared with the House his concern at being beaten up by this, but we are talking about the integrity and truthfulness of his party. What will he do about it? It is not a question of the figures; it is about what action can be taken. Last time, the excuse was that there was no legislation and it would take too long. We have a DCMS Bill in the House at the moment. What is wrong with tabling an amendment to that?

The DCMS Bill the noble Lord refers to deals with the operational delivery of the Commonwealth Games and has really nothing to do with the BBC at all. As for his question, I have replied to it: I said that everyone knew, when the manifesto was written, that the responsibility had been given to the BBC by Parliament. That is where it rests, because that is where Parliament put it, and that is why we are disappointed with its decision.

My Lords, we on these Benches agree that we must support our older citizens. However, does the Minister accept that the introduction of free TV licences for the over 25s; sorry, for the over 75s—that would be expensive—was government policy and should be paid for by the Government? The licence fee is not the Government’s to spend: it is not public money but the public’s money and should be used to invest in BBC programmes and BBC content. There is no point in a free licence if the BBC is so pared to the bone that there is nothing of quality to watch.

I do not agree that the BBC is pared to the bone. The BBC is a £5 billion organisation; it gets £3.7 billion from the taxpayer, so I do not agree that it is a pared-down organisation.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former chairman of the BBC and, once upon a time, an executive there—in the good old days. However we got to where we are today on the issue of pensioners, we are where we are. Does my noble friend agree with me in praising the diligence with which the BBC has set about trying to solve the problem of meeting the expectation of help for pensioners while at the same time not impoverishing everyone else’s viewing by making swingeing cuts in programme budgets? The BBC has behaved impeccably and been meticulous in trying to respond to the problem.

My noble friend makes the point that we are where we are. This was debated by Parliament and agreed. I know that some people, some noble Lords included, did not agree with the decision to pass responsibility to the BBC in the Digital Economy Act; nevertheless, that was done and the BBC is living up to the responsibility it was given. Dealing with the change in the structure of fees is a very difficult job, and television is changing dramatically, so I sympathise with the BBC; it has a difficult job to do. Nevertheless, we gave it a lot of warning—this was agreed in 2015—and that is why we are disappointed with what it has decided.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the chair of Age Scotland. This is not a matter for the BBC: it is a government responsibility. The Minister says that the Bill that my noble friend on the Front Bench referred to is not appropriate, but there is an appropriate Bill: I have a Private Member’s Bill, which has had its First Reading and will transfer responsibility back from the BBC to the Government. It will enable the Government to implement the promise that they made in their election manifesto. Will the Government support that Bill? If not, why not?

The noble Lord repeats his mantra that it is not the BBC’s responsibility. We decided in 2015, and the BBC agreed, that it would be its responsibility. After that, Parliament agreed in the Digital Economy Act that it would be the BBC’s responsibility.