TV Licences for over-75S

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:23 pm on 8th May 2019.

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Photo of John Grogan John Grogan Labour, Keighley 3:23 pm, 8th May 2019

It is a pleasure to follow James Cartlidge. I remind him that the BBC still reaches over 92% of the population every week. It is a great pleasure to support the motion, which is made the stronger by the fact that it is supported by all the major Opposition parties.

I want to put the motion in context. Democratic Unionist party Members talked about a lack of democracy. If we look back at how the licence fee settlement was reached—certainly the last two times, possibly the last three or four times—there has been a lack of parliamentary scrutiny and accountability. If there had been that accountability and scrutiny, we would be in a very different place today. Basically, this was presented as a done deal.

I listened carefully to the former Secretary of State, Mr Whittingdale. His most important phrase was, “the Chancellor made clear”. He described Lord Hall—I do not know whether he was on his own—being surrounded by the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and others. George Osborne is the villain of the piece here. In 2010, he had his first go at imposing this settlement on the BBC. He tried to get the BBC to accept responsibility for the over-75s. He was opposed at that point by the director-general, Mark Thompson, and the chair of the BBC Trust, Michael Lyons, who were supported, crucially, by the Liberal Democrats. The coalition Government was probably the difference between the situation in 2010 and 2015. George Osborne came back and imposed his will in 2015. It was a good settlement, but only for five years. The BBC were bullied into accepting that settlement and the Chancellor got his way.

All the briefing at the time was that the settlement was throwing red meat to the Tory Back Benches, and that the BBC had been put back in their box. I am glad to see that recently, as the former Chancellor has taken a new job as the editor of the Evening Standard—there is joy in heaven, Madam Deputy Speaker, when a sinner repenteth—he put his name to an editorial the other day that praised the BBC. It could have been written by a BBC publicist:

“With the budgets for new content from the likes of Netflix and Amazon now many times that which are available to the BBC, we need to think more strategically. All the ingredients are there: a highly trusted news brand, a global reach, an amazing archive and original content”— no red meat to the Back Benches there. Unfortunately, he concludes:

“A new mistake would be giving in to the predictable short-term pressure to exempt over-75s from the licence fee”.

He is wrong, because a solemn promise was made, in the full knowledge that the Digital Economy Act 2017 had been passed, and that the Government did not have the power to put that promise into effect. I have a great deal of respect for the Minister. Her best line, I think, was, “We have made our expectations clear to the BBC”. I wonder what those expectations are. I should be grateful if Ministers would make that clear. Are they pressurising the BBC to arrive at a certain outcome?