Digital Economy Bill - Committee (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:30 pm on 8th February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Ashton of Hyde Lord Ashton of Hyde Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport 5:30 pm, 8th February 2017

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords who tabled these amendments today, and in particular to the noble Lord, Lord Best, and the Communications Committee, which he chaired. I am also grateful for the contributions of the noble Lord, Lord Birt, and the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, on the future of the licence fee itself and how it may be arranged in the future, which is slightly separate from the debate we are having today about the process for doing it. I accept that, as technology changes, the way it is structured may have to be changed in the future. I hope we can have debates on that separately at some stage in the future. I am also grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Lester and Lord Stevenson, for their amendments.

Today we are debating a new nuance regarding the BBC licence fee. On a number of occasions, Members of the House have been clear that they would like to see an end to what some have called “midnight raids” on the BBC licence fee, and we have listened to that. The BBC’s new charter regularises the BBC’s future financial settlements for the first time, and the next one will be in five years’ time. In the meantime, there will be an inflation-linked increase.

The current charter also requires the BBC to provide data ahead of each licence fee settlement to inform the Government’s decision. It is, therefore, explicitly clear that the BBC will be able to make its case and the Government of the day will be able to consider that. It also follows that anyone with valuable views and thoughts on the subject, including noble Lords—many of whom I know have experience in these matters—can share these views with the Government when the time comes.

The noble Lord, Lord Best, suggests that Ofcom should recommend what the level of funding for the BBC should be, and he proposes further that there should be a public consultation on the appropriate level of funding. It is entirely appropriate that the assessment of the BBC’s funding needs and the subsequent level of the licence fee should remain a matter for the Secretary of State. As I said before, the licence fee is a tax paid by the licence fee payer, and taxation is a matter for the elected Government rather than an unelected regulator. It is right that the Government should have some responsibility for decisions that affect the tax bills of UK citizens, as I have set out before. We would be setting potentially odd incentives for the BBC’s regulator if—as the noble Lord, Lord Lester, pointed out—it would now also be called upon to make funding recommendations. The now-abolished trust model showed that mixing regulatory and strategic functions breeds confusion and conflicting incentives. The consensus has been that this has not worked and we do not want to recreate this model.

Ofcom needs to concentrate on regulating the BBC effectively. The noble Lords, Lord Lester and Lord Stevenson, have both proposed the establishment of an independent licence fee commission to make recommendations to the Secretary of State. We agree with the sentiment of independent advice. The Government stated in their White Paper, published last May, that they would consider taking independent advice at the next settlement should it be appropriate. However, that is a matter for the Government of the day. As with Ofcom, it would not be appropriate for an independent commission to make recommendations on level of taxation.