Digital Economy Bill - Committee (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:15 pm on 8th February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Birt Lord Birt Crossbench 5:15 pm, 8th February 2017

My Lords, I support the drift of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Best; I think that we need a proper, open, rigorous and transparent means of setting the level of the licence fee.

A little bit of history is that we did have a commission in the late 1990s, when the then Government appointed Gavyn Davies, a very distinguished economist and later chairman of the BBC, to do just that. As you would expect, he produced a searching, rigorous report. A further little bit of history is that he made a recommendation, and the Secretary of State, as you expect in politics, lowered the recommendation; as you do not expect, it went to No. 10, and the then Prime Minister not only upped his Secretary of State but recommended a level for the licence fee which was higher than that which Gavyn Davies recommended. It was the famous RPI plus 1.5% for seven years settlement, which allowed the BBC fully to enter the digital age. It was the process that Gavyn Davies led that enabled the Prime Minister to make a considered judgment.

However it is done, that body needs to look at the total environment. The most important issue in British broadcasting today, barely discussed at all, is the long-term decline of UK production. It is not going up; it is going down. It is going down because of the economic position of ITV and Channel 4. Any discussion of the level of the licence fee should look not only at the BBC but at the totality of the broadcasting production environment in the UK.

Some suggest that the licence fee should be linked to the RPI. There can, from time to time, be good reasons for that. I think that, strategically, it should be linked to GDP. The BBC performs a fundamental role in society, like the Armed Forces. We have a view of GDP and the investment we should make in the rest of the world; we should have a view in relation to GDP of how much we invest in our most important public service broadcaster. When GDP is stretched, as it has been over the past 10 years—though, thankfully, it is going up again—and if the country’s economy is suffering a reverse, then the BBC’s revenues should go down. If the country is prospering, so should the BBC—so should society’s investment in its most important public service broadcaster.