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TV Licence Fee Enforcement - Question

– in the House of Lords at 11:59 am on 23rd January 2020.

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Photo of Lord Young of Norwood Green Lord Young of Norwood Green Labour 11:59 am, 23rd January 2020

To ask the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport what assessment she has made of the report by David Perry QC, TV Licence Fee Enforcement Review, published in July 2015; and what steps she has taken since that report was published.

Photo of Baroness Morgan of Cotes Baroness Morgan of Cotes The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

My Lords, David Perry QC’s TV Licence Fee Enforcement Review concluded in July 2015 that, under the current licence fee model, the current enforcement regime should be maintained. The Government considered those findings and subsequently confirmed the model in the charter review of 2015-16. In December of last year, the Prime Minister said:

“We are looking at the possibility of decriminalising” and we will set out next steps in due course. We do believe that it is right to look again at whether criminal sanctions remain appropriate for TV licence fee evasion, given ongoing concerns about whether the criminal sanction is unfair and disproportionate.

Photo of Lord Young of Norwood Green Lord Young of Norwood Green Labour

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former governor of the BBC and welcome the noble Baroness to her new appointment. I also take the opportunity to congratulate the soon to be departing director-general on his service to the BBC. The noble Baroness is right that the Perry report was an independent review, which concluded that the licence fee was fair, proportionate and value for money. Does the noble Baroness recognise that taking people to court is in fact the very last resort in these cases and that, even when they are in court, people are given an opportunity to pay? Although it is true that it is a criminal conviction, perhaps a lot of noble Lords do not know that it is not recordable in a DBS check—so there is a difference there. I am aware of the comments that have been made, but I hope that, in any further review of the role of the BBC and the way that the licence fee is applied, we will recognise the importance of the organisation and the services that it provides. They are still very good value for money.

Photo of Baroness Morgan of Cotes Baroness Morgan of Cotes The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I thank the noble Lord. I know that these issues were also considered briefly by this House yesterday during a Question responded to by my noble friend. Like the noble Lord, I will take the opportunity to pay tribute to the leadership of the BBC that the outgoing director-general has shown over the last seven years. It will undoubtedly be a challenging act for the board to find somebody to replace him.

I take what the noble Lord said about the way that TV licence evasion prosecutions are handled. However, it is correct that, in 2018, 121,203 people were prosecuted and sentenced for non-payment of a licence and, as I think came up yesterday, the broadcasting landscape is changing, people across the country are concerned about the payment of the licence fee, and it is right that the Government should look at the system overall, with lots of consultation.

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour

My Lords, but what are the Government doing to ensure the continuation of free TV licences for all people over 75?

Photo of Baroness Morgan of Cotes Baroness Morgan of Cotes The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

Well, I discuss this issue regularly with senior management of the BBC. The Government of course remain disappointed that, despite the settlement agreed with the BBC over the licence fee in 2015, which was welcomed by the BBC at the time, this step has been taken. Discussions continue, but we think that the BBC should be funding free TV licences for the over-75s.

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

My Lords, I too welcome the Secretary of State. Will she confirm that the terms of the currently BBC charter specifically rule out any change to the BBC’s mission or public purposes during the whole of its lifetime? What assurances can the Secretary of State give that no steps will be taken, including the decriminalisation of licence fee offences, which would cost £200 million a year to the BBC, that would threaten or undermine the BBC’s ability to fulfil all its charter requirements?

Photo of Baroness Morgan of Cotes Baroness Morgan of Cotes The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

It is a pleasure to rejoin the noble Lord in another House of Parliament, although of course we remain on opposite sides. He is absolutely right to say that the mission of the BBC is set under the current charter. I want to say that the BBC is a very important institution to this country that produces some outstanding programming. But, as I say, the changing broadcasting landscape means that the funding model will need to be looked at again. Decriminalisation requires primary legislation; that could be done under the existing royal charter, and, as I say, any changes will require significant consultation, which I am sure will involve many thousands of people having their say, including BBC employees and management.

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

My Lords, I think it is fair to say that the issues that have just been raised are not the direct responsibility of the new Secretary of State, whom I welcome to her place, but she certainly has to inherit responsibility for them. The Government putting in their manifesto that they would find the funds for over-75s and then withdrawing that is certainly something that the party opposite will not escape with for very long.

Having said that, I will ask a rather narrow question, although it relates to the same issue. More by luck than good judgment, we have got out of the situation where the licence fee and the royal charter are renewed at the same time as general elections. That is to be welcomed. That having been said, we have a mid-term review, which I think is now scheduled for 2022. We have not yet seen the terms of reference for the review, so I would be grateful to know whether they will be published. I would also be grateful if the noble Baroness could repeat what was said yesterday in an answer during Oral Questions: that the mid-term review will remain, as was agreed during legislative discussions on the royal charter last time round, a light-touch review that will not deal with substantial issues to do with licensing, the licence fee or, indeed, the charter itself.

Photo of Baroness Morgan of Cotes Baroness Morgan of Cotes The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I thank the noble Lord very much. One recommendation from the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee in the House of Commons was that there should be more transparency in the process around the licence fee. We think that that is absolutely right. The Lords Communications Committee recently published a report on these issues, which the Government will respond to shortly. In asking about transparency, the noble Lord is absolutely right to say that there is an iterative process leading up to charter renewal. Also, we will need to start thinking about these issues as a Government, as a Parliament and as a country; we should not leave it all until the end of the process.