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BBC Charter Review

Volume 801: debated on Wednesday 22 January 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to review the continuation of the BBC Licence fee at the next BBC Charter Review.

My Lords, the royal charter maintains the licence fee funding model until the end of the charter in 2027. However, the Prime Minister has indicated that the Government will consider the licence fee funding model in the long term. In addition, under the charter, the BBC has committed to consider how alternative funding models such as subscription could supplement licence fee income. The results of this will feed into the next charter review.

My Lords, I am very pleased to follow the Question put by the noble Lord, Lord Black, on press freedom. It is one reason why the BBC as an institution, and its funding model, are held in such high esteem across the world. Is it not possible to criticise, for instance, the BBC for being too metropolitan or Radio 4 for being too miserable and at the same time defend not only its right to independence but its ability to hold senior politicians to account in a vigorous fashion? Will the Minister at least join me, and hopefully the whole of this House, in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Hall, for his stewardship in guiding the BBC over a very difficult and turbulent seven years?

My Lords, I am delighted to join the noble Lord in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Hall, who I do not think is in his place. I echo the words of my noble friend the Secretary of State in acknowledging, and thanking him for, his extraordinary contribution to public service broadcasting. On the noble Lord’s wider point, there is no question but that this Government strongly support the BBC’s mission to bring impartial news and hold politicians to account, not just in this country but to global audiences, including in some of the most remote parts of the world, and particularly where free speech is limited.

My Lords, there is talk of the Government looking at decriminalising non-payment of the licence fee. In 2015, Mr David Perry QC produced an exhaustive and comprehensive report. The Conservative Government of 2015 accepted his recommendation, which was to leave things alone. What has changed?

My Lords, the Government have said that we will review whether or not non-payment of a TV licence fee should be decriminalised. We will set out the steps on how we will approach this in due course. My noble friend is vastly more expert in this area than I am. I think two key things have changed: first, the broader landscape of what media is available and how we consume it has changed out of all recognition, and secondly—I am sure a number of noble Lords heard what I heard on the doorstep—this is a real concern for people. As a Government, we want to listen to the people who voted for us.

My Lords, I too pay tribute to the assured and inspiring stewardship of the noble Lord, Lord Hall, as director-general of the BBC. On Monday, the political editor of “Newsnight” reported a briefing that he had had from No. 10 about the appointment of the next director-general. The drift of that briefing first set out what No. 10 thought the proper specification for the new appointee was—its wish list—and then expressed No. 10’s wish that it should be consulted about who the next director-general of the BBC should be. Will the Minister, without equivocation, restate the convention now nearly a century old that it is the BBC’s board and only the BBC’s board that appoints the director-general?

Obviously, I cannot comment on the briefing, but I am happy to confirm the noble Lord’s last remarks.

Can the Minister confirm that the BBC’s scope and mission will not be changed, and nor will the BBC have financial or other obligations placed upon it, by the Government before the next charter review, and that the mid-term review will not be used to impose new requirements?

It is clearly and widely agreed that there is a longer-term challenge in working out the business model for the BBC. We have time to do that ahead of the 2027 charter review. Clearly, the Government have a part to play in that, as it spills over into areas, as the noble Baroness understands very well, of competition and other law. So that is the long-term goal, and any funding model needs to follow the business model.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the BBC would benefit from showing international cricket matches, as we have a whole generation of young people who were denied that opportunity because their family did not have Sky TV?

This feels like a very popular suggestion to your Lordships. Sadly, I have to disappoint my noble friend. While I might agree personally, there are no current plans to show international matches.