(Urgent Question) To ask the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport if he will make a statement on changes to the licence fee exemptions, programming and job losses at the BBC.
First, I congratulate Daisy Cooper on obtaining this urgent question and demonstrating that persistence pays off.
The BBC has for decades played a vital role in this country’s cultural and civic life, and that has never been more true than during the last few months. During an unprecedented global crisis, it has helped to counter disinformation and share factual information about the coronavirus pandemic, while reinforcing important public health messaging. It has been a constant source of entertainment. It has helped to fundraise for charities through “The Big Night In”, which the Government match funded pound for pound, and it has helped countless families across the UK to educate their children from home through services such as BBC Bitesize.
The BBC has also been a source of comfort to many during this pandemic, and none more so, perhaps, than those elderly citizens who have been forced to shield and stay at home and who are sadly most at risk of experiencing loneliness and isolation as they do so. That is why we welcomed the BBC’s initial decision at the beginning of the lockdown to continue to grant the licence fee concession to the over-75s, and it is why we were deeply disappointed when the BBC board announced earlier this month that it would be ending that concession from
In the 2015 funding settlement—a settlement that was widely considered to be a generous one and which the director-general said was a strong deal for the BBC—we agreed with the BBC that responsibility for the over-75s concession would transfer to it in June 2020. The BBC agreed to have both the policy decision and the funding responsibility. That reform was subject to public discussion and debated extensively during the passage of the Digital Economy Act 2017. During those discussions and the passage of that legislation, Parliament agreed that the future of the over-75 concession and how and when it would be implemented was entirely a matter for the BBC.
The Government’s view is that the BBC should be doing more, given the generous settlement that it received. During the 2015 settlement, we gave the BBC a number of things in return for taking on this responsibility. We closed the iPlayer loophole. We committed to increasing the licence fee in line with inflation, and we reduced a number of other BBC spending commitments. To help with financial planning, we agreed to provide phased transitional funding over two years to gradually introduce the cost to the BBC.
It is now essential that the BBC, having taken the decision to end the concession, gets the implementation of the change right and is not heavy-handed in its approach. While lockdown may be easing, older people across the country still face many challenges and still rely on their TV as much as they did a few weeks ago. The BBC can and should therefore do more to support older people, and it should look urgently at how it can use its substantial licence fee income to support older people and deliver for UK audiences of all ages.
As the national broadcaster, the BBC has a duty to represent all of the nation—both its youngest and oldest citizens, no matter where they live—and I am aware that many people have expressed concerns about cuts to regional programming as well as the BBC’s recent announcement of staffing reductions. Let me be clear that both operational and editorial decisions are a matter for the BBC. It is an independent body and the Government rightly have no say over the day-to-day decisions that it makes on programming, staffing or the administration of the licence fee, but as I have said, including during a recent Adjournment debate, the Government believe that the BBC must represent all of Britain. We set clear targets for news and current affairs and the need to represent all parts of the UK and the charter as part of the BBC’s mission and public purposes. It is for the BBC to meet these and Ofcom to hold it to account on doing so. That means engaging and reporting on local issues across our diverse communities, not just reflecting the views of the metropolitan bubbles of London and Manchester.
While the BBC remains operationally and editorially independent from the Government, we will continue to push it on these issues so that we can ensure that the BBC remains closer to the communities that it serves.
I just say to the Minister that that should have been three minutes, and he has taken five.
The BBC licence fee exists to give the BBC protection from political interference. The BBC should not be making decisions on welfare. That is the role of the Government. Last year, the BBC chairman said that
“the licence fee is at the heart of what we do. It establishes a direct relationship between us and the public and makes absolutely clear that our job is to serve them”— and yet here we are.
Let us be absolutely clear about how we have ended up here. It was the Conservative Government who took the decision in 2015 to stop funding for free licences, and it was the Conservative Government who forced responsibility on to the BBC board to make the decision on the future of the concession. The Government should never have asked the BBC to take that on, and the BBC should never have accepted it. Continuing with the licence fee scheme for the over-75s would have cost £745 million—a fifth of the BBC’s budget. To meet that cost without Government funding, the BBC would have had to close all of the following: BBC 2, BBC 4, the BBC News channel, BBC Scotland, Radio 5 live and local radio stations, as well as many other cuts and reductions. As it happens, the means-tested scheme will still cost the BBC about £250 million, and to help meet that cost it has recently announced hundreds of job losses and programming cuts.
The BBC has proved invaluable to the British public during the covid lockdown through its trusted news, entertainment and home schooling resources. Does the Minister agree? Age UK says that it firmly believes it is the Government’s responsibility to look after vulnerable older people, not the BBC’s. Age UK also thinks the Government should take back responsibility for a benefit that was introduced to tackle pensioner poverty. Will he do that? The Conservative Government have been responsible for these secret deals with the BBC that have significantly diminished its ability to serve the British public, so when the licence fee negotiations start in earnest next year, will he commit to a wholly transparent process involving Ofcom?
The decisions taken at the time of the licence fee settlement in 2015 were the result of lengthy negotiations with the BBC, in which it received a number of concessions that it strongly asked for. In return for those, it agreed that it would take on responsibility for the maintenance of the over-75s free TV licence concession. It was up to the BBC how it decided to take that forward. A number of options were suggested and consulted on by the BBC. The Government were disappointed, as I say, that it decided to remove the concession completely. There were a number of other ways it could have addressed it that would have saved the BBC money but would have at least maintained some help for those aged over 75. But, as I said, that was a matter for the BBC. Obviously, we will continue to discuss it with the BBC. In particular, we will be having discussions over the next licence fee settlement in 2022. We will ensure that there is an opportunity for Ofcom, and others, to have an input into that, but that is still some way off. In the meantime, as somebody who was responsible for those negotiations, I believed the licence fee settlement was a good outcome. The BBC made public the fact that it thought it was a good outcome, too.
This crisis has shown that local programming is more important than ever, both for essential information and for closeness of community. Is it not now vital that quality TV and radio at a local level remains at the heart of BBC output, including through programmes such as the 6.30 regional news, “Politics South” and “Inside Out”, in all regions?
I agree with my right hon. Friend. The charter of the BBC makes it plain, as one of the five public purposes, that it is the responsibility of the BBC to reflect, represent and serve the diverse community of the UK’s nations and regions. Ofcom, as he knows, lays down a number of requirements on the BBC and, indeed, on other public service broadcasters, as to how it does that. It is up to the BBC. I have made it clear before, and I do so again today, that I regard the BBC’s news and current affairs reporting of events taking place outside London and in the regions as an absolutely central part of the BBC’s purpose. I very much hope that it will continue to bear that in mind.
I congratulate Daisy Cooper on securing this urgent question, which goes to the heart of Members’ concerns about cuts to BBC funding, and the breaking of a promise to millions of pensioners and their families. This issue goes back to the charter and licence fee settlement that was made with the Conservative Government in 2015, when the Government made the BBC an offer it could not refuse: “Take on responsibility for paying the licence for the over-75s, or we will slash funding even further and consider removing the licence fee altogether.”
Since then, in this licence period alone, the BBC has lost £800 million in funding, even before bearing the cost of licences for the over -75s. Members may ask why the BBC accepted the settlement. Is it merely a coincidence that the then chair of the BBC Trust, Rona Fairhead, was later elevated to a peerage as the noble Baroness Fairhead, and took the Conservative Whip a short time later?
The Conservatives made a manifesto promise to maintain the licence for the over-75s. They broke it. Instead, they passed responsibility to the BBC, knowing that it would never be able to afford that responsibility. Since then, they have tried to blame the BBC at every turn, for every cut of every service, and for every redundancy. No doubt they will try to blame the BBC when bills start landing on pensioners’ doorsteps in August and September.
The Conservative Government themselves were party to this deal, so does the Minister not accept that the Government should own some of the blame? Can the Minister tell the House, as the hon. Lady asked, why the BBC should be responsible for implementing the Government’s social policy?
Cuts to the BBC, as everyone in this Chamber knows, are not merely about spending; they are about undermining the corporation’s independence. The Conservative Government are, at best, relaxed about reducing the BBC’s budget, because it is the only lever they have to control the BBC’s capacity to ask tough questions on behalf of the British people.
Ministers knew that making the BBC shoulder that responsibility in full would lead to cuts equivalent to the closures of BBC2, BBC4, the news channel, the Scotland channel, Radio 5 live and Sports Extra, and a number of local stations. Indeed, the cuts to BBC news reporting and all the redundancies in local and national news, at a time of national crisis, when the BBC is more valued and essential than ever, are a direct result of the Government’s failure to maintain their election promises.
The Minister will have seen evidence from Age UK, detailing how millions of pensioners have relied on their televisions for company, especially during the pandemic. What advice would he give to a pensioner who will face the heart-breaking choice in the coming months between turning off their TV for good, or forgoing other basics such as food or heating? That is the reality of the Government’s broken promise to 4 million pensioner households.
I remind the hon. Gentleman that at the time of the licence fee settlement in 2015, the Government were still having to put right the mess that they had inherited, due to the financial profligacy of the previous Labour Government. Everybody had to play a part in that, and the BBC was included. It was a tough negotiation. I call tell the hon. Gentleman— I was part of the negotiations—that Baroness Fairhead strongly argued the case for the BBC, and the outcome was satisfactory to the BBC and the Government, as was made clear by the BBC at that time. The manifesto commitment to maintaining the licence fee during the 2015 Parliament was maintained, which is why the exemption is only now being removed in 2020.
Any pensioner on a low income will continue to get a free TV licence if they are in receipt of pension credit. Age UK has rightly drawn attention to the fact that quite a number of pensioners do not receive pension credit, even though they are entitled to do so, and one of the consequences of this move, which the Government would welcome, might be an increase in the take-up of pension credit.
I welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box. He has always spoken sensitively about this subject and has great experience. He will be aware that the BBC received a generous settlement of about £200 million, whereas the concession for pension credits will cost £250 million, and to keep things as they are would cost £750 million, so we are well aware that the BBC was not fully funded. Returning to regional news, the concerns that I and many Members have is that many of our constituents rely on regional news to deliver locally for them, and 450 out of 3,000 jobs are at risk of being lost. Does the Minister agree that if the BBC wants to win friends in this place, it should look after the regions?
I thank my hon. Friend. He is right about the cost of maintaining free TV licences for all over-75s, which is already approaching £750 million and would go on rising. Any Government—and, indeed, the corporation—were going to have to consider that. On his point about regional programming, as we made clear in the recent debate held by my hon. Friend Neil Parish, it is a matter for the BBC, but regional programming is essential. I am pleased that some of the fears expressed about cuts to regional political and current affairs coverage did not materialise, but I am still concerned at the level of cuts that are taking place, and we will be watching carefully to ensure that the BBC continues to fulfil its obligations on regional coverage.
Tory Ministers’ feigned shock at BBC job cuts and at old people being pursued for TV licence payments is nothing but humbug. Everyone knew that this would be the result of the last charter deal, cooked up by the Government and BBC director-general Tony Hall. The Government demanded that free TV licences for the over-75s—which should be a social provision—be funded by the BBC, and the BBC was unwise enough to knuckle under and accept. The BBC could not afford it, and I warned at the time that it would lead to swingeing BBC job losses and pensioners being pursued through the courts for licence payments—a double whammy of cruelty, especially during covid. Lord Hall is off to another lavishly paid job, but pensioners across the country will have to find the cash to pay for licences they cannot afford, while hundreds of staff at the BBC now face redundancy as a direct result of this dreadful Tory deal. The Government need to take back control of pensioner licence provision. Will they do so?
First, there were a number of options available to the BBC for how to reduce the costs of the over-75s exemption. The BBC chose to abolish it in its entirety, but there were options, including providing it at a later age, reducing it to a proportion of the licence fee or restricting it to households that only contained over-75-year-olds. It has always seemed to me extraordinary that a banker at Goldman Sachs who happens to have his grandmother living in his home can claim a free TV licence. There were a number of options, and I personally regret that the BBC chose to go ahead with the total abolition. The hon. Gentleman talked about hard-up pensioners. Pensioners on low incomes will continue to receive a free TV licence if they are in receipt of pension credit, so those who are most likely to be unable to afford it will not be required to pay.
Last month, senior executives at the BBC took it upon themselves to remove episodes of “Little Britain” and other comedies from its iPlayer platform because of concerns that some characters might now be considered to be offensive. Does my right hon. Friend understand the anger of fans of these programmes that executives at their state broadcaster whose salaries they pay have made this censorious decision and effectively made a value judgment about them for continuing to enjoy those programmes?
That is a matter for the BBC, obviously, but I share my hon. Friend’s surprise that the BBC decided that “Little Britain” was so unacceptable. Certain programmes that were extremely popular in the ’60s, for instance, would now be regarded as wholly unacceptable, which not just the BBC but all of us need to remain sensitive to, but there is a risk that removing certain programming that is still widely enjoyed—it was even suggested to me at one stage that “Fawlty Towers” might be removed because it gave offence to people—is taking political correctness too far.
The announcement of further job cuts at the BBC is yet another blow for public service broadcasting. There are many BBC freelance workers in Vauxhall with jobs on important TV and radio shows. Some of them have had long-term contracts with the BBC for many years, and they are taxpayers and licence fee payers, but they have not benefited from the same support that other taxpayers have rightly received from the Government, simply because of the type of contract they are on. As a result, many are contemplating leaving the media industry altogether, which in my view is a tragic loss of talent and experience. Given the immense challenges these freelancers face, will the Minister make representations to the Chancellor and persuade him to fill the gaps and end the one-size-fits-all approach to withdrawing these schemes?
In the case of the BBC, the majority of its staff are of course paid with public money and therefore were not eligible for furlough, but there are some BBC employees who work for the commercial arm, some of whom were furloughed, and, as the hon. Lady says, there are a number of freelancers. The Government have sought to provide support to freelancers through the self-employment income support scheme, and of course for those who fall outside that there is the availability of universal credit. Nevertheless, I am aware that there are a number of freelance workers, not just for the BBC but across the media, who are finding it difficult, and of course we continue to look to see what help can be given to them.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the BBC needs to look urgently at how it can use its substantial licence fee income to support older people and to deliver for audiences of all age groups?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. It is important to bear in mind that although the BBC is under financial pressure like many other organisations, it benefits from the licence fee and other income to the tune of around £5 billion. It is certainly the case that there are ways of achieving efficiencies and savings in the spending of that budget, which would perhaps have meant that some of the more difficult decisions, such as the removal of free licences for the over-75s, could at least have been mitigated.
Research by the Library has revealed that more than 3,000 households in my constituency may lose access to their free TV licence as a result of the Government’s deal with the BBC. The charity Age UK described axing the free TV licence as
“a kick in the teeth for millions of over 75s who have had a torrid time during this crisis.”
What message does the Minister have for pensioners forced to take difficult decisions between their television and other essentials such as food and heating?
I would say to anybody facing that kind of choice that they will almost certainly be entitled to pension credit, and if they are not currently in receipt of it, they should perhaps look to see whether they are eligible to receive it. It is the case that a number of pensioners on low incomes do not currently receive it. One of the consequences of this is that the BBC will write to every single one of the over-75s to inform them that they are potentially still eligible for a free TV licence if they are on pension credit, so this will perhaps be the best marketing tool for pension credit that we have ever seen.
Many of my constituents and people across Lincolnshire are dismayed at the BBC’s decision to scrap free licences for the over-75s. Can my right hon. Friend assure me and my constituents that he has engaged with the BBC and made those concerns very clear on behalf of many of our constituents?
I do not think the BBC will have been in any doubt about the Government’s view. I and the Secretary of State have regular discussions with the chairman and the director-general. I fully recognise that this was a very difficult choice for the BBC—it represented a massive amount of money to maintain free TV licences in their entirety—but, as I said earlier, I think there were other options available that would have made this at least a little less painful for those who now are going to be required to pay the full cost of the TV licence, having previously not had to pay anything at all.
The Government have been completely disingenuous about this issue all along. Let us be honest: the BBC was given no choice but to take on responsibility for TV licences. My hon. Friend Christian Matheson is absolutely right: the Government should not be outsourcing their welfare policy or, indeed, their manifesto promises to the BBC. Funding for the BBC’s UK public services is now around 24% less in real terms than if the cost of the licence fee had risen with inflation from 2010, and the BBC is facing £800 million of cuts. Given all that, does the Minister seriously expect that the BBC would be able to keep funding free TV licences for all over-75s? Can he tell us that with a straight face?
I can say to the hon. Gentleman that the BBC asked for a number of concessions—the unfreezing of the licence fee, to which he referred, the closing of the iPlayer loophole and other saving reductions —that resulted in its income increasing. The cost of giving free TV licences to those aged over 75, which was introduced only in 2008, was rising inexorably and would soon be approaching £1 billion. I have to ask all Opposition Members whether, if they believe that the free TV licences should continue, they are committing that a future Labour Government, or even a future Liberal Democrat Government, might one day pay to restore them, at a cost, by then, of well over £1 billion.
I associate myself with the comments of my colleagues who have raised the prospect of job cuts at regional news services. At a time when local media are struggling, we need trusted local news services, which keep places such as Cumbria informed, provide companionship and hold those in power to account. In a place like Cumbria, any cuts will fall disproportionately on the excellent local teams, because there are so few people there already. Does my right hon. Friend the Minister agree that salami-slicing such organisations will help no one, including the BBC if it wants to meet its public service remit?
I agree with my hon. Friend. I have discussed the proposed reductions with the director for England and the director of nations and regions for the BBC. It is obviously a matter for them, but in my view although the BBC may have to find savings across its budget, that does not mean that every area of expenditure should be reduced. There are areas in which the BBC could save more and there are areas where any cuts would have a damaging effect. I fear that regional coverage is in that latter category, so the BBC should prioritise it. We will continue to make that clear to the BBC.
Almost 3,500 pensioner households in my constituency of Dundee West will be dramatically affected by the loss of TV licences. These are pensioners who receive one of the worst pensions in Europe, are likely to suffer from loneliness and disabilities, and are shielding as a result of covid-19. Surely this pandemic has shown us that television is not a luxury and the UK Government must recognise their public health responsibility to ensure that everyone receives vital information. Will the Minister assure my constituents that the UK Government will reverse the decision and provide the financial support to allow the concession to continue for those who can least afford it?
As I say, the matter was extensively debated during the passage of the Digital Economy Act 2017, and it was Parliament that agreed that the responsibility should be transferred to the BBC, so that is not likely to be reversed. It is a matter for the BBC as to how it goes about this. The Government are disappointed and believe that alternative options were available. I encourage the pensioners in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency to check whether they are entitled to receive pension credit and therefore to maintain a free TV licence. The exemption was introduced only 12 years ago, at an age that was relatively arbitrary at the time; it did not need to be set at that age and that is something else that the BBC might have considered.
My constituents are dismayed at the BBC’s decisions in respect of licences for over-75s and the proposed cuts to local coverage. Does the Minister agree that after having so recently received that “strong deal” in the renegotiation, the BBC ought to have raised this issue before it was three years into the period if it was not intending to continue with the obligations it has set out?
To give the BBC some credit, it did hold quite a lengthy consultation in which it put forward a number of options as to the future of the exemption. In my view, some of those other options were greatly preferable to the one that the BBC finally chose, which was the decision to abolish it in its entirety. I think the BBC could have done more. I am at least assured that the BBC has now said that every person over 75 who currently has a free TV licence will receive a letter: first, to point out that they can still receive one if they are on pension credit, and secondly, to say that no action will be taken in pursuit of the BBC’s requiring a licence until after those letters have been dispatched and received.
Thank you for granting this urgent question today, Mr Speaker. The TV licence and the services provided by the BBC have been a lifeline to many in my constituency of Newport West in recent months. Can the Minister tell me what discussions have taken place with the Welsh Government in recent weeks to ensure that Welsh regional programmes are maintained and my constituents are not penalised by the shabby approach to public broadcasting from this Government?
As my hon. Friend is aware, the issue of decriminalisation has been subject to a lengthy consultation. The Government are now considering the very large number of responses to that consultation and we will bring forward our proposals once we have completed that consideration.
The Minister called on the BBC to do more to support older people, but perhaps he should start by putting his own house in order. More than 1 million of the poorest pensioners missed out on £2.5 billion of pension credit in 2017-18 and now they will not get a free TV licence either. Instead of his crocodile tears about the cuts that the Government have forced on the BBC, will the Minister be asking the BBC to run regular public information announcements at peak times, encouraging people to apply for pension credit?
The hon. Lady raises a good point, in that some of the communications that the BBC had promised to carry out are now going to be impossible due to social distancing, so we will be looking to the BBC to run public information campaigns of that kind. As I said, the BBC is also sending a letter to every single person over 75, telling them what their options are.
I sympathise with my right hon. Friend the Minister, who is being asked to simultaneously ensure that the BBC spends more money on free licences and more money on programmes. Not only is that mathematically incompatible, it is not within his power at all. Does he agree that the real welfare issue is to ensure that poorer pensioners continue to receive the benefits of the BBC, which are important to many of them, and that therefore the practical way to help poorer pensioners is for both the BBC and Members of Parliament to ensure that as many as possible of those who are entitled to pension credit actually claim pension credit?
My right hon. Friend will know from the many times that he has stood here that being asked to do impossible, contradictory things is quite frequent. The point he makes is absolutely right. It is very important that all those people entitled to pension credit should take it up and I believe that one of the consequences of this matter is that that will be achieved.
More than 4,000 households in my constituency of Oldham East and Saddleworth no longer qualify for a free TV licence. That is nearly three out of four over-75-year-olds. There is a theme in the questions. We have already heard that more than 1 million pensioners eligible for pension credit do not claim it. Instead of hand-wringing and saying it is other people’s jobs to do it, what will the Minister do to ensure that those people who are eligible for pension credit receive it?
The Government seek to publicise pension credit availability as widely as possible, but the BBC has now said that it will write a letter to every single pensioner over 75 and I think that will have a greater effect in driving up pension credit than any other measure.
The coronavirus pandemic has meant that many of my constituents in North West Durham, particularly those shielding, many of whom are elderly, have been increasingly reliant on the television over the last few months. This weekend, I joined with my hon. Friend Jonathan Gullis in calling on the BBC to look again at this cancellation for the over-75s. Will the Minister join us in that call today?
As I have said, the Government deeply regret the decision that was taken. I hope that the BBC will continue to consider it as we move into the next licence fee settlement. Obviously, discussions will take place around that, and we will look at what other options might be available to try to extend help not just to those aged over 75, but to other people as well, but that ultimately will be a matter for negotiation with the BBC.
The award-winning BBC programme “Inside Out” highlighted the devastating impact of mesh implants, without which this scandal could have gone on undiscovered for much longer. Now “Inside Out” is under threat. Does the Minister understand the link between the BBC’s rising costs and income cuts and the loss of high-quality local BBC journalists?
I share the hon. Lady’s admiration for “Inside Out”, which, as she said, did some extremely hard-hitting investigative programmes, which led to real change. I am encouraged that the BBC is maintaining “Inside Out” and is moving from, I think, three stories per episode to one story per episode over a longer time, so it will be a 30-minute programme. It is good that “Inside Out” will continue, but obviously any reduction in investigative journalism by the BBC is a matter of regret.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the BBC could have the capacity to make significant savings to its £5 billion of spend a year, and does he agree that greater transparency would go a long way to help identify those savings? A Government Department or a local authority needs to publish every invoice in excess of £500. Is it not wholly unfair and iniquitous that the BBC has simply refused to do that?
I agree with my right hon. Friend. Undoubtedly, there is scope for efficiencies and savings. One thing that the Government have done is fully open up the BBC to scrutiny by the National Audit Office, and I think that that has led to some efficiencies. I am encouraged by the conversation that I had very recently with the incoming new director-general, Tim Davie, who recognises that there is scope to seek efficiency savings and is committed to looking across the whole range of BBC activities to see how that can be achieved.
The Minister rightly recognises the BBC’s amazing covid service. I just want to put on record how invaluable BBC Bitesize has been to my six-year-old daughter and my long-suffering husband who has been home schooling her through the lockdown. Does the Minister recognise that the BBC is part of a much wider ecosystem in which it commissions a lot of independent production companies? We know that the creative sector is really suffering and that many jobs are in jeopardy, and does he recognise, therefore, that this continued pressure on BBC funding will put that wider revival of the creative arts sector, in terms of the independent sector, at risk?
I join the hon. Lady in thanking the BBC for all that it did to maintain educational programming during lockdown. As for the contribution that it makes to the independent production sector, she is also absolutely right. One thing that I have been concentrating on is trying to help the production sector get back into operation, and we have had frequent meetings with representatives to see how that can be achieved. I am delighted that most productions are now getting going again, but obviously maintaining and sustaining our production sector right across the country will remain a very important additional role for the BBC.
Over recent years, I would describe myself as having moved from being a friend of the BBC to being an extremely critical friend of the BBC, and I tend to think that, to some extent, it has lost its way. The director-general has today replied to a letter sent by the Blue Collar Conservatives group, in which he says that
“we will continue to deliver new programmes that represent and reflect modern Britain and the voices of the whole of the UK.”
I suggest to the director-general that the view from Cleethorpes is very different to that. Does the Minister agree that, instead of pandering to these groups and trying to seek new audiences, who perhaps will never remain with the BBC, it should actually provide a better service to its core audience and, again, review the over-75 issue?
I agree with my hon. Friend. In the service that the BBC provides across the UK, in all the different communities, it is absolutely essential that it tries to sustain support for the licence fee and does not just serve the metropolitan elite in London and Manchester. I am very much aware that communities like those in Cleethorpes are beginning to feel that the BBC is not providing sufficiently for them, and I hope the BBC will take that into account.
At the general election in 2019, the Conservative party manifesto stated:
“We recognise the value of free TV licences for over-75s and believe they should be funded by the BBC.”
Only months later, over 4.5 million elderly people learned that they are to lose their free TV licence. The question—many people want to know the answer—is: what did the Government do to try to save the free TV licence scheme? Is it now time to recognise that the free TV licence for over-75s is a public good and should be funded by the Government?
I absolutely stand by the wording of the 2019 manifesto. It remains the case that the Government recognise the value of these licences and believe that the BBC should have maintained them. We made that amply clear to the BBC. Ultimately, however, Parliament agreed that the decision should rest with the BBC.
I represent a heavily rural constituency, and I have been deeply concerned by recent BBC programming that portrays farming and the agriculture sector as either twee and backward or environment-wrecking vandalism. This is deeply wrong and misleading. With over 9,000 people over 75 years old in Brecon and Radnorshire, many feel deeply let down by the BBC at the moment. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the BBC needs to take a look at itself and ensure that it is giving every taxpayer value for money?
I am aware of some of the concerns that my hon. Friend refers to. Obviously it is not a matter for the Government to pass judgment on BBC programming, but it is possible for viewers to make their feelings known by complaining to the BBC and, if they remain unsatisfied, to take the matter to Ofcom.
Age UK has said that many older people on low incomes have told it that if they are to find £150 or more a year to pay for a licence fee, they will have to forgo other essentials or try to survive without a TV at all. Given that TV news is the only source of information for some older people, particularly during the current pandemic, what would the Minister propose as an alternative way of getting this vital information to those who will no longer be able to afford to watch telly?
I very much hope that those on low incomes will take up pension credit and so continue to be able to watch television, but of course there are other means. If people are anxious to obtain information, they can listen to any number of BBC radio channels and do not require to have a TV licence.
While the BBC is a valuable national institution, many in Stoke-on-Trent South are concerned about its archaic funding mechanism. In a world where subscription is becoming the norm, does my right hon. Friend agree that reform and identifying better ways to fund the BBC is well overdue?
I have considerable sympathy with the points that my hon. Friend makes. We are not yet at the point where we could consider moving to a subscription service, because a lot of people still rely on Freeview, which does not allow it. However, the way in which people consume television is changing so fast that it will increasingly lead to questions about the sustainability of the licence fee, and that will certainly be under consideration when we come to the next charter review.
Does the Minister understand that many of my constituents are fed up with the begging-bowl behaviour of the BBC, which seems to think that its pocket has no bottom to it, and increasingly frustrated by the political bias and the reckless spending of this organisation, with its £1 million-and-more contracts for presenters and the fact that it pays over 100 directors more than the Prime Minister? Will he undertake, first, to ensure that no pensioner who cannot afford the compulsory levy will be criminalised as a result of non-payment? In the longer run, will he look at how the BBC is funded so that we do not have this compulsory tax on people who increasingly get their entertainment elsewhere anyway?
I sympathise with the right hon. Gentleman. It was of course as a result of the most recent charter renewal that we now know how many people in the BBC are paid over £150,000 per year and who they are. But there will always be scope for change. If his constituents have complaints about political bias or any other content, I would encourage them to proceed those with the BBC and ultimately Ofcom. I can assure him that when we consider the long-term future, the licence fee will very much be a part of that consideration.
Many of my older constituents will be facing the double blow of being asked to pay more for the BBC while seeing the programmes they value the most and regional news cut back. Is it not time, and should it not be part of the charter review, to ask what licence fee payers want to see? Is it right that regional news programmes should face such a disproportionate burden of cost savings at the BBC?
As I indicated earlier, I am concerned at the extent of the reductions taking place in the regional programming budget. I do not think that savings should be spread equally, and there are other areas where greater savings could have been found. That is something we will continue to discuss with the BBC. I hope that the incoming director-general will also have a look right across the board to see what savings can be made and what areas to prioritise.
During the covid crisis, many people have relied on their local councils for information and support. Local news plays a vital role in both helping share that information and, rightly, holding local councils to account. The cuts of 450 jobs in regional news in England amount to a loss of one in six jobs. What consultation have the Government had with the BBC about the threat to the democratic process arising from these job losses?
I have discussed the implications of reductions with the director for England and the director for nations and regions at the BBC. However, I would draw attention to the BBC’s local democracy reporting service, which it put in place and funds 150 journalists precisely to address the hon. Member’s concern about how local councils in particular should be properly held to account and reported. The BBC has pledged to maintain that, and I hope it will continue to do so.
The licence fee was first introduced in 1946 largely to help fund television after the second world war. At that time, there was one channel and one broadcaster. The world has changed a great deal since then and we see new digital streaming services emerging on an almost daily basis. Following the Minister’s answer to my hon. Friend Jack Brereton, will he assure the House that there will be a fundamental review of how the BBC is funded in time for its new charter in 2027?
I share my hon. Friend’s view that the landscape is changing so fast and there is a much more choice now available to viewers, and that should cause the BBC to look again at what it provides and consider those areas where public service content is still important and where, perhaps, in other areas it is no longer so necessary. That fundamental issue will be under consideration as part of our forthcoming public service broadcasting review. At the same time, we will also be talking to the BBC in detail, as part of the licence fee negotiations, about the funding it will require in the future.
Many of the assumptions around these negotiations—audiences are shrinking and the young are tempted away by Netflix—are contradicted by coronavirus. On the week that lockdown started, 94% of all Britons used it, as well as 86% of young adults. There have been a billion hits on iPlayer, and there were three million people on Bitesize the day it launched. In all, that makes up 24% of all online time, compared to 3% for Netflix. Does the Minister therefore share my dismay that the current round of cuts is hitting only band B and C journalists—the people producing the output that is keeping us all going—and that none of the management or higher bands are affected? Does he not agree that they should bear some of the burden, too?
Of course, one of the consequences of the lockdown was that viewing figures right across the board for both linear and online programming dramatically increased. However, I absolutely agree with the point the hon. Member makes. It is entirely a matter for the BBC as to where it finds savings, but I do believe that the journalists and reporters are providing an invaluable service in the regions. I certainly hope that the BBC will listen to the point she has made, because I have considerable sympathy with it.
All 61 games in next year’s rugby league world cup will be shown on the BBC—I just hope that rugby league fans from my patch who are over 75 will be able to afford their TV licence. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the BBC should look to continue doing what it does best and stop trying to do everything?
I do agree with my hon. Friend. As I said earlier, with the huge increase in choice, it may well be that there are areas in which it is no longer as important that the BBC provides programming content as it was before that choice extended to the extent that it has. I hope that is something the BBC will consider carefully, and I believe that the director-general, who will shortly be taking up his post, is intending to do that.
In 1968, long before the Minister’s apparent predilection for Netflix, he may well recall that the BBC comprised two TV channels, four radio stations and just a small handful of local radio stations. Fifty years on, the BBC licence fee is at the same level in real terms, despite the great local and national services it provides, which have helped young and old through the recent crisis. As a public and social service at 43p a day, does this not already represent excellent value for money?
It is very difficult to judge whether something is value for money when it is a legal requirement to pay it; people do not have a choice. We generally judge whether something is value for money by whether or not people choose to buy it, but of course that is not possible in the case of the licence fee.
In 2015, the BBC made a commitment to solely fund free TV licences for the over-75s in a deal that Lord Hall described as a “strong” one. The people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke are rightly angered by its decision not to honour this commitment. Will my right hon. Friend act in haste to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee and, at the next charter review, commit to scrapping the licence fee altogether?
I do understand the feeling of my hon. Friend’s constituents. On the point he makes about decriminalisation, that is something we are seriously considering. We are currently going through the responses to our consultation on that matter, and we will be announcing the outcome very soon.
Alongside free television licences for the over-75s, which I will keep campaigning on, may I raise how, during lockdown, a number of elderly and vulnerable members of the East Kilbride West church have been tuning in to the BBC’s “Reflections at the Quay”—enabling them to join the service on a Sunday morning, when they would normally have been attending church—which, appallingly, has now been taken off air, leaving them absolutely devastated? Many are still shielding, lonely and now more isolated than ever, and my constituents want this important programme back. I urge the Minister to have a discussion with the BBC about the importance of religious broadcasting in supporting the most vulnerable at this time.
As the hon. Lady knows, religious broadcasting is part of the public service obligations. How the BBC goes about fulfilling those obligations is a matter for it. However, I can fully understand the concerns of her constituents, and I would urge her to take up that matter with the BBC.
I thank the Minister for his statement. I agree with him that the BBC still does a number of things well, particularly with regard to coronavirus. However, with this decision on the over-75s, the cutbacks to regional news and regional current affairs, and the news that £12 million has been paid out of licence fee payers’ money to settle the tax bills of former BBC presenters, does he agree with me and my constituents in Newcastle-under-Lyme that it is far too metropolitan and out of touch with towns across the country such as Newcastle?
I think my hon. Friend will be aware that the auditor was very critical of the decision about the settlement of the tax bills of those employees who operated through public service companies. That is a matter for the BBC, but the National Audit Office is there to audit it. It is a responsibility of the BBC to look at the way in which it spends public money. The licence fee is a privilege and, going with that, it has the responsibility to spend it properly
Before the general election last year, I led a debate in Westminster Hall calling on the Department for Work and Pensions to introduce a new campaign to increase the uptake of pension credits. Work and Pensions Ministers have refused to do that, and in answer to written questions I have tabled, they have refused to increase the campaign to get take-up above 60%. The Minister knows that it is not for the BBC to implement Government welfare plans, so rather than just relying on the BBC writing letters to all over-75s, will the Minister commit to getting the DWP to start such a campaign, including writing to those pensioners who are entitled to the £2.5 billion that remains unclaimed by some of the poorest pensioners across the UK?
I would have thought the hon. Gentleman would have welcomed the fact that the BBC has now said it will write to every pensioner over 75 to say they might still be entitled to receive a free TV licence if they are eligible for pension credit. That seems to fulfil exactly what he has asked for.
I know that “Eastenders” has a place in the hearts of many of our constituents, but not one so well embedded that they were not disappointed to learn that the cost of rebuilding the set went from just under £60 million to almost £90 million—£30 million of licence fee money on one project. Would it not be better for the BBC to focus on saving money and selling worldwide what we pay it to make, rather than on cutting free TV licences for pensioners?
My hon. Friend raises an interesting point about BBC expenditure. One reason the NAO was given total access to the BBC’s books was to identify areas of extravagance or waste, and it did a very good job. He is also right that the BBC makes a considerable income from selling its programmes abroad, and that, too, is something where I hope the BBC will continue to look for opportunities to raise additional income.
In Hull, our local BBC TV and radio is central to our community, as a public service broadcaster at times of crisis such as the flooding in 2007 and covid-19 this year, and by playing an important democratic role in scrutinising those in power locally. Taken with the parallel cutbacks in local newspapers and commercial TV and radio, local and regional BBC cuts are a growing crisis in local news, not least in the places furthest from London. The Minister has already said that this could lead to a more London-centric media. What will he do about that to protect news in places such as Hull?
I sympathise with the hon. Lady, particularly, of course, because commercial media have been under tremendous pressure as a result of the covid crisis and the consequent almost collapse of advertising, which has made the BBC’s contribution all the more important. I welcome the fact that the BBC is maintaining its local radio network and is not going through with some of the reductions in local coverage that were feared, but it needs to do more. I am extremely pleased that it is continuing to support the local democracy reporting service, which ensures that there are still reporters in local council chambers.
It was absolutely right that the BBC opened up a major production facility in Salford, because there was a perception that it was far too London-centric. There is a risk that it is now seen as far too London and Manchester-centric, so it needs to do more. It is not just a question of value for money; the BBC has a responsibility to make sure it is properly represented in and covers all the regions and nations of the UK.
Many of my constituents question why they are forced to pay for an outdated and regressive tax to fund an organisation whose values are becoming increasingly detached from their own. The BBC’s decision to renege on its agreement to fund the licence fee for those aged 75 and over has only served to harden these views. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the time has come to review the very existence of the licence fee?
I share a lot of the criticisms that my hon. Friend makes of the licence fee. It is highly regressive, and there is no means testing or benefit available to anybody under 75. However, in the past it was always felt that, for all its faults, there was no better way of funding the BBC. That may become increasingly questioned, particularly as more and more people obtain their programming online. Undoubtedly, that debate will form part of the next charter review.
Because of huge Government cuts, the BBC has reluctantly had to axe the free TV licence for the over-75s, and make substantial reductions to national news and its much-treasured regional news output. During the heat of the election, the Conservatives extolled the virtues of local news and promised to protect our elderly from isolation by retaining their free TV licences. Will the Minister take this opportunity to apologise to those millions of pensioners and the BBC staff who will lose their jobs as a result of the Government’s broken manifesto pledge?
The Government have always believed very strongly in the independence of the BBC. It is for the BBC to take decisions about its programming content, its employment practices and, indeed, the licence fee. It was not for us to instruct it. However, as I and the Government have repeatedly made clear, we regret the decisions it has taken about over-75s and regional programming.
I share everyone’s disappointment that the BBC has chosen to break the agreement that it came to in 2015, but what worries me above all about this change is that we are talking about people who are very old and frail—people who may be suffering from developing dementia, or may be going into care homes or hospitals. They will be criminalised if they do not pay the licence fee. The Minister has the power to change that, and I urge him to do so.
As my hon. Friend is aware, there are strong feelings about the current criminal enforcement of the licence fee. The Government recognise that, which is why we are holding a consultation. We hope to say more about that soon.
The TV has been a vital lifeline to pensioners during the pandemic, but because of some very cynical Conservative party buck-passing, more than 5,200 households in East Renfrewshire—more than 80% of homes in which someone is over 75—face paying the licence fee. Those pensioners rely on their televisions. The Government clearly have an influence, so will the Minister use it and work with the BBC to reverse this unfortunate and very damaging decision?
There were a number of options available to the BBC, as I said, and it chose to proceed with the complete removal of the concession for over-75s. That is a matter of regret, and of course we will continue to talk to it. As Parliament made clear, the responsibility lies with the BBC.
The BBC’s role in delivering regional and local news is more critical today than ever, particularly given the pressure faced by advertising-funded media organisations, some of which have seen their income fall by more than 80%. That is in sharp contrast with the BBC’s guaranteed funding of more than £5 billion-worth of licence fee. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Ofcom, as the UK’s media regulator, should review the proposed changes to the BBC’s regional current affairs content to ensure that the public service broadcaster is delivering its licence obligations?
My hon. Friend has done a lot of work in this area through the all-party parliamentary media group, and he and I have already discussed the huge pressure on commercial media as a result of the covid crisis. He is absolutely right that the BBC’s obligation to provide programming in the regions is laid down by Ofcom, which will assess whether it is properly carrying that out.
Will the Minister confirm that real-terms public funding for the BBC has dropped by 30% since 2010, as the Voice of the Listener & Viewer, the UK’s leading audience charity, found?
It was the case that licence fee was frozen for a period of time, but the licence fee settlement, which was agreed in 2015, allowed it to rise again in line with inflation. Since then, the BBC’s income has been maintained in real terms. As with every other institution, in 2010 very difficult decisions had to be taken because of the mess that the economy was in.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend on that. The BBC’s obligation to be objective and impartial is absolutely at the core of its public purpose—it is written into its public purposes. There are doubts on this, and I draw her attention to a good article in The Sunday Times by Roger Mosey, the former head of BBC news gathering, in which he echoed a lot of the concerns she is expressing.
May I remind the Minister that the BBC has chosen the option that he put forward as a Back Bencher on
The House has discussed the best way of dealing with the problem. My version of the way forward is to say that the value of the licence fee should be taken into account in the tax allowance so that pensioners who do not pay tax get the full benefit, those on the standard rate get some benefit and those on the higher rate get much less benefit. I hope he will agree on that, but will he please look at it?
I do remember my comments, and I never suggested that the BBC would not be faced with a very difficult decision, because the cost of maintaining the exemption is huge and would go on rising. My hon. Friend makes an interesting suggestion. We are coming up to a licence fee settlement in which we will be looking at all these questions, and I am certainly happy to consider the point he has made.
Locking up the over-75s is a remote but still shocking possibility of the BBC move, as Lord Hall told the Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport recently. Ahead of any potential decriminalisation, will the Minister assure the House that he will speak to the BBC in the strongest possible terms to ensure that there is no possibility of its aggressively prosecuting non-payment in a way that could lead to pensioners finding themselves in prison, where, ironically, they would receive a free TV licence? Will he take the opportunity of the mid-point of the charter to undertake a root and branch review of the future of funding and what we require from public service broadcasting?
As my hon. Friend knows well, the number of people going to prison has fallen to a tiny number, but it is still debatable whether that should happen at all. I hope the BBC will be very flexible in its implementation of its new policy and will take account of the needs of pensioners when it comes to enforcement. On the future of public service broadcasting and the licence fee, I absolutely can give him the assurance he seeks.
In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for three minutes.