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BBC: Funding

Volume 835: debated on Wednesday 17 January 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government, given the freeze in the BBC licence fee over the last two years and following their announcement on 7 December 2023 of changes to the licence fee from April 2024, what are their plans for future changes to BBC funding.

His Majesty’s Government are committed to the licence fee until the end of this royal charter period. Decisions on the uplift of the remainder of the settlement period will be made in due course. The review of the BBC’s funding model will ensure that future funding arrangements are fair, sustainable for the long term and supportive of the BBC’s role in our creative industries. Final decisions on a funding model will be considered as part of the charter review.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. A cut of 30% over 10 years plus a two-year freeze, which would probably be equivalent to 12%, are massive cuts. They have led to massive reductions in BBC local, national and international services and news broadcasting. The cuts certainly go much further than could possibly be justified by fat-trimming or a response to changes in demand for television compared to streaming. They add up to death by a thousand cuts and threaten the BBC’s future. Can the Minister say whether the BBC is safe in his hands?

My Lords, the licence fee is receiving an uplift, which seeks to strike a fair deal between the impact it has on the people who pay it, particularly when the cost of living is still a concern for many, and making sure that the BBC has the income it needs to do the brilliant work for which it is rightly admired by this Government and many around the world. As a result, it benefits from more than £3.8 billion per annum in licence fee income, but we are looking at sustainable models for funding it in a world where there is increasing competition and where, sadly, we see a declining number of people paying the licence fee at all.

My Lords, the convention in this House is to shout “Stowell”, but I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Vaizey for his support. The Communications and Digital Committee published a report on BBC future funding 18 months ago, in which we found that the status quo is not an option. Decisions about how to fund the BBC in the future are becoming increasingly urgent. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that, for this review to be meaningful, it is important that the BBC itself sets out its proposals for its role in the next 10 to 15 years and how it will change to fulfil that role? What is happening to meet that need as part of the Government’s efforts?

My noble friend and the other members of the committee she chairs do valuable work in scrutinising and adding to the thinking for both the BBC and the Government. The BBC is obviously independent, and it is for it to decide how to take forward the recommendations that the committee makes. However, we would like to understand the BBC’s perspectives and make sure that they are clearly understood and factored into the review and, ultimately, any decisions on the BBC’s funding model. We look forward to working closely with the BBC and my noble friend and her committee as we do that.

My Lords, the BBC’s funding depends on people having confidence in its unimpeachable impartiality. If its highly paid presenter Gary Lineker comments obsessively and one-sidedly about Israel and holds it to standards never applied to other countries—including, this weekend, disgracefully posting a call for it to be banned from international competitions—he is clearly breaking even the BBC’s watered-down guidelines. Is it not about time that he was shown the red card?

My Lords, the BBC social media guidelines say very clearly that:

“Everyone who works for the BBC should ensure their activity on social media platforms does not compromise the perception of or undermine the impartiality and reputation of the BBC”.

Particular parts of the guidelines apply to flagship presenters; it is important that the BBC applies those guidelines to all those whom it employs.

My Lords, we on these Benches have long proposed that the funding process should be taken out of government control and handed to a genuinely independent body. As the noble Lord, Lord Morse, said, does not the Government’s announcement on 7 December, which would deprive the BBC of £400 million over the next four years—and which came, as I understand it, as a surprise to the BBC—make that case?

My Lords, we want to look at the best long-term funding models for the BBC, which ensure that it gets the income it needs. It currently gets more than £3.8 billion a year. However, like many other organisations, it must look at how it spends its money in the current economic climate, mindful of the impact that has on people who pay the licence fee. In addition, as part of our future funding model, we will look at other ways in which it might get the income to continue doing the work for which it is rightly renowned.

My Lords, I may have to change my name to Tina. I declare my interests as set out in the register. I have no opinions to offer on the future of the BBC or its funding. My concern is to stress to the Minister that one of the greatest economic success stories—one of the very few in this country in the last two decades—has been the creative industries, and at the heart of that are all our public service broadcasters: the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5. Without them we would not have had “Mr Bates vs The Post Office”, “Line of Duty” or “Happy Valley”. I would love to hear some warm words from the Minister about how the future of the creative industries and the important part it plays in sustaining investment in British production, which the BBC is a big part of, will very much be in the Government’s thinking.

I wholeheartedly agree with the noble Lord. The creative industries were growing twice as quickly as the economy overall before the pandemic. That is why, as part of the creative industry sector vision, we are looking to turbocharge that growth and why the creative industries are one of the Chancellor’s five priority areas for our economy. The noble Lord is also right to point to the importance of our public service broadcasters. I watched the third part of “Mr Bates vs The Post Office” last night on ITVX. It is a shining example of how the arts and creative industries can shine light on important issues facing society, and long may that continue.

My Lords, during Monday’s BBC Question, references were made to the threats posed by disinformation and, in particular, the value of the BBC, which is seen as a trusted provider of news both at home and abroad. The Minister said that it was

“a beacon that shines brightly around the world”.—[Official Report, 15/1/24; col. 222.]

With that in mind, does he welcome the recent launch and gradual scaling-up of BBC Verify? Does he agree that the Government could greatly assist this new team by improving their own presentation of political events and official statistics?

That is fitting for a Question begun by the noble Lord, Lord Morse. The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, is right. So many of the world’s democracies go to the polls this year, and this is an issue which will face broadcasters, but the BBC particularly, both at home and through the World Service, does a brilliant job at making sure that the claims of politicians—wherever they are in the world, whatever party they come from—are rightly scrutinised and that people are informed so that they can make decisions about the societies and countries in which they live.

It is right against the backdrop of an ever-more complex digital universe to review the funding model for the BBC, as the Government intend. However, will one or more of the panel of experts to be appointed to advise the Government be an expert in the evolution of the BBC, with an understanding that its emergence as one of the most renowned institutions in the whole world, noted for its values, its creativity, and its devotion to public purposes, is inextricably bound up in the fact that for 100 years it has been publicly funded?

We will ensure that the expert panel helps to inform our thinking in the round, looking at both the things that have made the BBC so successful over the last century and the challenges ahead. We have also already been consulting the BBC itself as part of the process.

My Lords, there has never been a greater need for the BBC World Service. It is soft power at its best, and it feels very vulnerable in many areas, such as Iran, where it broadcasts vital information. Can the Minister guarantee the future of the World Service when the world is in a more precarious situation than at any time since the end of the last war?

My Lords, I mentioned in answer to Monday’s Question the £20 million uplift which we gave the World Service last March, on top of the £94 million that it receives annually. We will also ensure that any implications from the future funding model which might have a bearing on the World Service are taken into account.