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House of Lords Hansard
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Television Licences
06 July 2020
Volume 804

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to discuss with the incoming Director General of the BBC the postponement of the withdrawal of free television licences for people aged over 75.

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My Lords, the Government congratulate Tim Davie on his appointment as the new director-general of the BBC. The Secretary of State spoke to Tim Davie on his appointment and looks forward to working with him in the months and years ahead. However, I must make it clear that the BBC is responsible for the over-75s licence fee concession, not the Government. The BBC board is keeping the start date of its new policy for the over-75s under review and has said it will announce its decision on any further delay to the changes to the concession in July.

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My Lords, that is a totally unacceptable Answer. Surely both the BBC and the Government have accepted by postponing for two months how vital television is for old people to keep in touch with vital information from the Government, as well as entertainment and other information. Now, since older people are being asked to be in lockdown, many of them indefinitely, surely it is not too much to ask the Government and the BBC to get together now to discuss postponing this withdrawal of free TV licences, also indefinitely. Will the Minister give the assurance today that the BBC and the Government will get round the table to discuss postponing this indefinitely?

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The Government are well aware of the sacrifice that many people, particularly elderly people, have made during the past few months. However, the responsibility is absolutely clear and was debated extensively by this House during the passing of the Digital Economy Act in 2017: the BBC is responsible for this matter.

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The Covid-19 crisis has emphasised more than ever the dependence of the over-75s on their television sets, particularly those who are isolating. The arrival of a new director-general at the BBC gives an opportunity to open up again what was an extremely controversial negotiation with the Government about the licence fee. Will the Government bear in mind during these proposed negotiations that the cohort of over-75s who watch television is very varied indeed? Some of them are extremely rich and can afford it, but many of them, the most dependent, cannot afford it at all. Therefore, there is an opportunity here, given a new negotiation, to offer some scale of payment that the Government and the BBC might consider appropriate.

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There will be a very wide range of issues, I am sure, to be discussed between my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and the new director-general of the BBC when he comes into post. The Government are clear that everyone entitled to claim pension credit should do so, and we are aware that that is not the case universally, so we are also working in particular on that.

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In light of what our elderly have already experienced with Covid-19—the isolation and loneliness they have endured—many will have serious long-term effects. Does the Minister agree that it is time for the BBC to stop the blame game and honour the clear commitment already given to the over-75s?

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The noble Lord is right to highlight the sacrifices made by the over-75s, but we are all aware that sacrifices have been made in many age groups. It is critical that we are clear that the BBC remains operationally independent of government.

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Lord Caine. No? Then I call Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury.

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I am sure that the Minister agrees that the BBC has proved its gold-dust weight during this crisis of the Covid pandemic and lockdown, providing a reliable source of national and local news for all, an essential aid to those home-schooling, and solace and entertainment for the lonely and elderly. In which case, why do the Government not take back responsibility for the licence fee concession for the over-75s, introduced by a Labour Government in which the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, served, as something to be paid for by the Government, not by the licence fee payer, and which the BBC was, frankly, forced to take on? Does she not agree that not doing so means that the BBC will inevitably have to cut back on the essential services I have referred to?

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The noble Baroness is right to say that over the past few months, the BBC has certainly provided high-quality information, education and entertainment, and has shown great agility in its response. However, I do not accept the second part of her question. The framework for negotiating the next stage in terms of the licence fee with the BBC will be settled by the end of next year, and I am sure that a number of these issues will be taken into consideration.

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Bearing in mind that pensioners have suffered more than most in the lockdown, and sadly with the extent of deaths among them from Covid-19, and that TV remains their number one contact with outside life, is it really sensible or fair that the vast majority of them are going to face an annual tax of £154.50, or £40 a quarter? Surely the BBC should find a way to pay for this long-held free TV licence. First, why not look again at the Peacock report, published in May 1986, which recommended selling off Radio 1 and Radio 2 to fund it? Secondly, if it was acceptable for the BBC World Service to take advertising, why not consider it for a part of the BBC now?

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My noble friend raised a number of different options but, at the risk of repeating myself, we are very clear that it is the responsibility of the BBC to work out how it spends its budget. Most recently, in giving evidence recently to a Select Committee, the BBC’s director of policy was clear that everybody would be given time to transition to a new system when it is announced.

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My Lords, will the Government undertake to discuss with the new director-general the harassment of the BBC’s Persian service? The London-based staff face criminal investigations and asset freezing by the Iranian authorities, along with death threats and online attacks that are especially targeted at female staff. What specific practical help can the Government offer to this vital part of the World Service?

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The noble Baroness has raised an important point, which I will share with colleagues in the department.

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My Lords, the BBC is not solely responsible for the cuts that it is now having to make. This was a budget cut imposed on it by the then Chancellor in a crude attempt to evade the Government’s statutory responsibility for welfare policy. One of the proposals that was rejected by the Government during the passage of what became the Digital Economy Act was for an independent assessment to be made of the BBC’s funding needs in order to deliver its charter responsibilities. Will the Government look at this fair and equitable policy during the next licence fee round?

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The noble Lord is critical of the last settlement, but I would remind him that the BBC itself regarded it as a good deal.

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My Lords, the licence fee was created by a Conservative Government to protect the BBC from intimidation and sniping by the Government of the day. Is it not time that the Government stopped using the licence fee as a bran tub to dip into for populist causes and gave the BBC the protection from political interference that it deserves?

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I am slightly perplexed by the noble Lord’s question, because I do not think that the Government see the licence fee as a bran tub at all. As I have said in answer to almost every question today, the Government absolutely respect the editorial and operational independence of the BBC.

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My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has now elapsed.