Television Licences: Over 75s - Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:00 pm on 27th November 2018.

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Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Opposition Whip (Lords) 3:00 pm, 27th November 2018

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they will take to maintain free television licences for those over the age of 75.

Photo of Lord Ashton of Hyde Lord Ashton of Hyde The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

My Lords, we know that people across the country value television as a way to stay connected with the world. The Government have guaranteed free licences for those over 75 until 2020. We agreed with the BBC that responsibility for the concession will transfer to it in 2020. It confirmed that no decisions will be taken until the public have been fully consulted, but we have been clear on our expectation that the BBC will continue the concession.

Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Opposition Whip (Lords)

My Lords, in its manifesto the Conservative Party actually promised free TV licences for the over-75s until 2022. However, the BBC is currently consulting on “what, if any” licence fee concession should be in place for older people from June 2020. The ONS classifies the BBC licence fee as a tax. Will the Minister point to the section in the royal charter that gives the BBC the power to levy taxes? He will recall that he said, on 29 March 2017:

“I reiterate that taxation is a matter for the elected Government”.—[Official Report, 29/3/17; col. 624.]

Does he still stand by that statement and will he join me in calling on the BBC to withdraw this disgraceful consultation?

Photo of Lord Ashton of Hyde Lord Ashton of Hyde The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The BBC is doing exactly what it agreed when the settlement was put in place in 2015. We agreed at that time to provide a continuous licence fee, increasing by inflation, for five years. That had never been done before. We agreed to close the iPlayer loophole, which was what it wanted. In return, the BBC agreed to take on this concession. However, we have been clear that we expect the BBC to continue with this important concession. It was agreed by the BBC, Parliament and the Government.

Photo of Lord Naseby Lord Naseby Conservative

Speaking as one who declares an interest as I was 82 last Sunday, should the director-general not look at his own house? For instance, why should he not look at the Peacock report, which proposed that the BBC should take advertisements in certain circumstances? After all, the BBC World Service takes them and—your Lordships may study this—there are about three minutes of propaganda for forthcoming programmes in every hour of BBC programmes, ad nauseam.

Photo of Lord Ashton of Hyde Lord Ashton of Hyde The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The director-general of the BBC should be proud when he looks at himself in the mirror. The BBC is a national institution and the Government support it. We made a deal with it when the new charter was put in place. It is a £5 billion organisation and is more than capable of delivering on this agreement.

Photo of Lord Foster of Bath Lord Foster of Bath Chair, Rural Economy Committee

My Lords, in this age of multichannel provision, our public service broadcasters—not least the BBC—are crucial in ensuring the provision of high-quality, British programming and news that we can rely on. Yet if the BBC does not go ahead with cutting the over-75 licence fee concession, its own content will be dramatically cut. Why should the BBC be forced to make a social policy decision that should be the remit of government? If the Government want the fee concession for over-75s protected then surely they should pay for it, not the BBC.

Photo of Lord Ashton of Hyde Lord Ashton of Hyde The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The noble Lord talks about news but other public service broadcasters have the same duty to provide impartial news. I completely agree with him that what the BBC produces is a benefit, and it is a tribute to it. Other public service broadcasters have the same duty but they do not have a £3.8 billion head start from the taxpayer.

Photo of Lord Harris of Haringey Lord Harris of Haringey Labour

My Lords, I am not sure that the Minister answered my noble friend’s question. If it was a manifesto commitment of the Conservative Party that the licence fee concession would continue until 2022, why have the Government subcontracted it to the BBC to break that manifesto commitment? Does he regard the licence fee as a tax and, if so, do the Government subcontract taxes to other people?

Photo of Lord Ashton of Hyde Lord Ashton of Hyde The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I think that the noble Lord misunderstands the position. We made it absolutely clear to the BBC that we expect it to continue with this important concession, and in October the Secretary of State also made that clear to the House of Commons committee. However, the Digital Economy Act, which was passed before that, also made it clear that the Government retain the power to maintain the concession until 2020, which we will do, after which full responsibility will transfer to the BBC. Therefore, the settlement took place before the manifesto was written.

Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

Would it not be good if the director-general of the BBC occasionally came to this House, of which he is a Member, to assist us in discussions of this kind?

Photo of Lord Ashton of Hyde Lord Ashton of Hyde The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I am not sure that that would be helpful—for a number of reasons but mainly because it is very important that the BBC’s director-general, who is the editor-in-chief of the BBC, stays clear of politics as much as he can.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, I do not think I am alone in struggling to understand exactly what the Minister is telling us. Can he confirm that, when the settlement with the BBC was made, it was made clear to it by the Government that it would receive the five-year funding uplift on condition that it continued to maintain the free licence for over-75s? If that is the case, effectively the BBC’s licence fee income was cut. Can he confirm that that is the case? If it is not, presumably the BBC has the autonomy to do as it pleases and determine the outcome of the licence for the over-75s.

Photo of Lord Ashton of Hyde Lord Ashton of Hyde The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The noble Baroness is quite right: the BBC has the autonomy to do as it pleases. Responsibility in this area was handed over to it in the Digital Economy Act with Parliament’s agreement. So far as the first part of her question is concerned, it is true that that was agreed in the settlement, and that is why the director-general of the BBC said:

“The government’s decision here to put the cost of the over-75s on us has been more than matched by the deal coming back for the BBC”.