Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:33 pm on 21st July 2020.

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Photo of Daisy Cooper Daisy Cooper Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Justice), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 12:33 pm, 21st July 2020

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.

From 1 August, the BBC will fund free licences only for people over 75 who receive pension credit, but two-fifths of people who are entitled to the benefit—about 1.2 million pensioners—are not receiving it. Some do not know how to claim, many struggle to apply and others feel embarrassed about requiring help. Is the BBC really to become a de facto arm of the Department for Work and Pensions?

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?