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BBC Licence Fee

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:31 am on 6th February 2020.

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Photo of Tracy Brabin Tracy Brabin Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 10:31 am, 6th February 2020

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this timely and important urgent question. As our public sector broadcaster, the BBC is central to the lives of our constituents: 91% of Britons use the BBC every week, and 26 million households have a TV licence. The future of the BBC as a public service broadcaster is a crucial matter to all of us. Yesterday, the Government announced plans to look into the decriminalisation of non-payment of the licence fee, but decriminalisation was not mentioned in the Conservative party manifesto. Prisons are not overflowing with people locked up for non-payment, and the courts are not overwhelmed with non-payers. Last year, only five people were imprisoned for non-payment, so my question is: why now, when there are so many other pressing matters for Government time, and especially as the Government’s own independent review, carried out as recently as 2015, concluded that the current system was the fairest and most effective way of funding the BBC?

Convicting people through the civil courts could mean higher fines for vulnerable people and greater evasion. The cost of transitioning to a new civil system could cost the BBC at least £25 million in set-up costs and lost revenue. Does the Minister think that that would be good value for money? Does he believe that the Government have a mandate for such a drastic change to the primary funding stream of our public service broadcaster? Have the Government made any assessment of the likely impact on the BBC’s ability to carry out core programming functions?

The Secretary of State said yesterday that the BBC needed to be more transparent and accountable, but does the Minister not think that the Government need to lead by example rather than deciding who may and may not attend press briefings and banning Ministers from appearing on respected news outlets? Can he assure me that this announcement is not part of a deliberate strategy by the Government to undermine an organisation with which they have been at loggerheads?