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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

I understand the point the noble Lord is making; he illustrated it right at the beginning of his speech in the previous debate. This is a matter of principle: whether we think statutory underpinning is the right mechanism for the royal charter for the BBC. I acknowledged to him that in some cases it might be, but I did not agree that it was appropriate for the BBC. I take his point and his due warning about Report. I agree it is relevant to this, but we have established that we have a disagreement on that point of principle. As for binding future Governments, of course we do not want to do that, and, in fact, we cannot.

The next question is that of public consultation on the settlement or the level of the licence fee. As noble Lords will appreciate, funding a public service is not a straightforward topic for public consultation. For example, the recent charter review found that almost 75% of the public consider the BBC’s programming to be of a high quality, but just 20% said that they would like to see the licence fee rise in line with inflation, thus helping the BBC maintain these high standards. Public consultation, therefore, needs to be approached with due sensitivity.

The BBC’s funding needs are a very complicated and technical issue, as we have seen at every licence fee settlement. The judgment about the overall package is a fine one. It should therefore remain for the elected Government to decide how to approach reaching an appropriate level of BBC funding in a detailed and extensive negotiation with the BBC. As I have said, this resulted in a position that the director-general has said is a strong deal for the BBC that gives it financial stability.

Finally, Amendment 223 seeks to remove the ability of the BBC to set age-related licence fee concessions in the future. I have already explained that the licence fee is a tax and it is right that the Government should retain the ability to determine the outline priorities of what it should be spent on. The BBC explicitly sought responsibility for the age-related licence fee concession. Removing the BBC’s ability to determine this policy—for which it will pay—simply prevents the BBC being the master of its own destiny. I believe it is particularly arbitrary to withdraw the BBC’s ability to set this concession without knowledge of what the overall funding package for the BBC will be at that future point. I do not believe that that is in the BBC’s interest, now or in the future. With those explanations I hope that, for the time being, the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.