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Young Audiences Content Fund: Replacement

Volume 820: debated on Thursday 17 March 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they will replace the Young Audiences Content Fund which supported the production of British-made content for commercial broadcasters.

My Lords, in begging leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, I declare my interests as in the register.

My Lords, the Government are committed to the success of our world-leading TV production sector. UK-wide television tax reliefs, including for children’s television programming, continue to play a vital role in driving production to record highs, with more than £4 billion of expenditure supported in 2021. A full evaluation of the three-year pilot Young Audiences Content Fund will take place to determine its impact. The potential for further investment will be assessed against that evaluation and against future public service broadcasting needs.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. However, the Government’s recent decision to close the Young Audiences Content Fund has removed a successful incentive for UK commercial broadcasters and UK producers. This is devastating for the children’s creative industry. The fund had given a new lease of life to an ailing children’s sector. It also allowed producers from diverse backgrounds to get commissioned. Interim measures need to be put in place now. What consideration are the Government giving to ensuring that other sources of investment—such as raising the production tax relief credit from 20% to, say, 40% or 50%—could be found to maintain the diversity of high-quality programming for UK children that will be freely available to all and save the children’s creative production sector from catastrophe?

My Lords, the Young Audiences Content Fund was a pilot. It is still open. It closes at the end of this month, at the end of its three-year period. It was a pilot to test a new way of financing public service television. At the end of the pilot, a full evaluation will take place to determine its impact. The noble Baroness has anticipated some of the things that might emerge from that evaluation, but I hope she will agree that it is important that it be evaluated. She mentions the tax relief that we introduced. That was aimed specifically at children’s TV, and since 2015 has directly supported 543 projects, delivering over £623 million of expenditure in children’s television production.

My Lords, the points made by the noble Baroness are well made and we support them wholeheartedly. I am grateful for the comments that the Minister has made but they do not really go far enough. More worryingly, this seems to be part of a pattern of activity and policy at DCMS—a pattern that I am sure this House will have noticed—including the issues of the future of Channel 4, the delay in securing provenance for programmes on widespread release, the BBC licence fee and charter arrangements, and regional news and journalism. The issues all seem to come up, suddenly get an announcement and then are withdrawn. Do we not need a White Paper looking more broadly at the wider context of the media, how we want it to progress in this country and the need for it to mesh more closely with a modern version of public service broadcasting?

My Lords, we are looking at that wider context. The Government have committed to ensuring that viewers and listeners benefit from a modern system of public service broadcasting that remains relevant and which continues to meet the needs of audiences, now and in the future. That is why we announced the strategic review of public service broadcasting so that we can do that. The evaluation of this fund will feed into that wider strategic review so that we can see the best way of delivering what everyone wants.

My Lords, the whole point of a pilot is to test the water and find out what works and what does not. If it does not work, scrap it, but if it does work then keep and develop it. This scheme was successful, as the Government themselves admit, with the programmes funded winning awards and being sold around the world. To simply say that there is to be an evaluation while closing the scheme does not seem like a good enough answer.

My Lords, the funds were set up using unallocated funding from the 2010 licence fee settlement to pilot contestable funding in priority areas of public service broadcasting provision. Although this and the equivalent fund for listeners performed well, any further investment of taxpayers’ funding will need to be assessed against the evaluation of the funds and future public service broadcasting needs, informed by our wider strategic review. DCMS and the fund administrators will conduct a full evaluation of the pilot against its fund criteria, including quality, innovation, additionality, provision for every part of the UK, diversity, the boost to new voices and plurality, and the reach of audience.

My Lords, in response to a question earlier this week, the Minister talked about the ever-expanding creative industries with pride, as indeed he should. However, this kind of decision really rather gives the lie to that sort of rhetoric, as it does to his earlier reference to—I cannot remember exactly what he called it—world-beating children’s programming. Does he not agree that decisions of this kind—taken, as the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty said, without any real sense of how the future might look—are extremely dispiriting for the very talented young people who are coming through and hoping for a career in this area of our creative industries, who are now feeling that perhaps it is not going to work out for them?

My Lords, this is a three-year pilot that is about to reach the end of its three years, and it must be evaluated so that we can see whether it has been as beneficial as noble Lords anticipate that it has. The noble Baroness is right that, even with the challenges of the pandemic, the industry has reached new heights of success, seeing record production in 2021, which is testament both to the UK’s status as the best place in the world to produce television and to the hard work of everyone involved in the industry. We want to evaluate the impact of the fund so we can see how best we can support them to continue to reach even greater heights.

My Lords, can the Government at least ensure that there is a continuation of funding until such time as the review has been carried out and a government decision is made about what is to happen in future? Will that decision bring to an end the days of the Government raiding the BBC licence fee for projects, however worthy they might be?

My Lords, it is important that this trial to test out new ways of contestable funding be evaluated before those decisions are taken.

My Lords, is it not weird that a three-year project has not been evaluated in the course of running it? If you were doing this in commerce, it would be automatic that you would reach the end of a pilot knowing whether or not it had been a success. To take the good bits and then dump them into space for a year and a half, or however long it will take the Government to do this, rather than continuing them because you know they are succeeding, is not the right way to run a Government.

My Lords, it is usual for a pilot to end and then be evaluated once all the data collected can be seen in the round. Noble Lords have pointed to many of the emerging conclusions, but it is right that we evaluate it in the round.

My Lords, up to the beginning of this year, 144 development projects and 55 productions had been funded, some with really great output including Irish, Scottish, Gaelic and Welsh projects. Could I push the Minister a little more on the timescale of the review? Many of his answers have said that a review is going to be carried out, but no timescale for it has been set. Are we talking about the next few weeks or next month, or is it going to drag on for months to come?

My Lords, the Young Audiences Content Fund and the Audio Content Fund have supported 220 hours of children’s television content and around 650 hours of radio content to date. We want to carry out the evaluation once the fund finishes at the end of this month and to see that as part of our wider strategic review of public service broadcasting. I cannot set out a precise timescale for the noble Lord, but we want to do that swiftly and thoroughly.

My Lords, if our creative industries are as successful as noble Lords on all sides have said, and if our audio-visual sector, including children’s content, is, as my noble friend the Minister says, world-beating, why does it need subsidy?

My Lords, in public service broadcasting it is important that we provide for all the audiences that rely on it. Children of course do not have the same consumer power that adults do, and it is important that high-quality and distinctively British content is made for children in this country, particularly when there are so many other options for them to watch programmes from around the world, particularly from across the Atlantic. That is why it is right that we support public service broadcasting and make sure that the high-quality programming that we already enjoy can continue for generations to come.