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BBC: TV Licence Evasion - Private Notice Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:36 pm on 5th February 2020.

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Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Labour 3:36 pm, 5th February 2020

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their estimate of the cost to the taxpayer of decriminalising TV licence evasion and, should decriminalisation take place, how they propose to continue to fund the BBC World Service and BBC Monitoring.

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

My Lords, the Government have launched this morning an eight-week consultation on the potential to decriminalise TV licence evasion. The Government are asking for evidence of the impact on taxpayers and the BBC. We will explore in further detail and consult on options around how to do this and assess the cost to the taxpayer if required. The BBC is responsible for funding the BBC World Service and BBC Monitoring, as set out in the charter. The Government currently provide some grant in aid funding for additional World Service languages as part of the World 2020 programme through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Labour

I thank the Minister for her reply, as it stands. She is no doubt amazed that I am not mentioning frigates and our nation’s shortage of them. However, I am going to talk about the World Service, which is a crucial part of our soft power and something we really need to support. I am afraid the way that we are moving with the TV licence does not seem to take into account how we will ensure that it is properly costed. It is about not just money, but the perception around the world, which must be that our Government do not see the World Service and the BBC to be as important as they used to. The timing of this is extraordinary, just after the election campaign, Brexit and everything. Even if it is not true, the perception will be that this is having a go at it. The fact that Ministers do not go to key current affairs programmes on the BBC again will lead to the perception that the Government do not care. Do the Government see the BBC as a national treasure, which I believe it is, or something that, in time, they wish to dismantle?

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I shall quote my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in describing the BBC as a cherished national institution, which I guess is not far from a national treasure. The World Service is obviously an absolutely key part of that. The royal charter states that the BBC must spend at least £254 million a year on the World Service up to 2022. In the last year for which we have accounts it spent £289 million, but I absolutely agree with the noble Lord’s sentiment that that reach of over 400 million people a week is invaluable to us as a nation.

Photo of Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Wales)

My Lords, the Minister mentioned that an eight-week consultation is about to take place. In 2015, David Perry QC undertook detailed, evidence-based research. It took as long as it needed to consult 190,000 people, 75% of whom said that they supported the licence fee as fair, proportionate and good value for money. Things may have changed, and we may need to reach different conclusions, but is she honestly telling the House that an eight-week consultation period will achieve the same quality of material upon which to make decisions?

A headline in this afternoon’s Evening Standard reads:

“It’s time to stop jailing BBC licence fee evaders”.

That is going to be the tone of much of the debate in the next eight weeks. Is it going to be a fair and dispassionate discussion, with headlines like that? In a pressurised period, such situations may deny the public any opinion of the Conservative Party conserving very much.

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

As the noble Lord, knows, very few people have been jailed—only five. We are consulting because we think that it is right to look again at whether the criminal sanction is appropriate. There are ongoing concerns that it could be seen as unfair and disproportionate, but at the risk of stating the obvious, the point of a consultation—and this is an open consultation without a recommended approach —is to get to the truth. There is enormous interest. Over 2,000 responses have been received already, and the consultation only opened at 11 am. There is a lot of public interest in this.

The noble Lord rightly probed whether this will be sufficient time. The Government may need to consult further on the detail of any potential changes before taking a decision, but not before we have found out what the public think.

Photo of Lord Trefgarne Lord Trefgarne Chair, SLSC Sub-Committee A

My Lords, following the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, I heard recently of a case in which an unmarried mother with four children who had not paid her TV licence was sent to prison for a month. Her children had to go into care, with a cost to the public purse of many tens of thousands.

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I am very sorry to hear of that case. As we know, women and people from black and minority ethnic communities are overly represented among those who are sanctioned for evasion. One of the things that we want to explore though this consultation is the impact of a changed approach on those groups.

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

My Lords, in her speech earlier today, the Secretary of State said that many people thought it wrong that you can be imprisoned for not paying the TV licence, and its enforcement punishes the vulnerable. In view of that, can the Minister confirm that you can still be imprisoned for the non-payment of a civil fine; that the civil courts cannot take the personal circumstances of the vulnerable into account in the same flexible way that magistrates can when setting fines; and that since the scope and mission of the BBC has been fixed until 2027, no change which reduces BBC income can be introduced until then?

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The noble Lord makes fair points regarding enforcement. That is clearly part of the process of consultation. One of the principles set out in the consultation document is about the cost and difficulty of implementing alternative schemes and whether alternative schemes are fairer and more proportionate. He will also be aware that colleagues in the Ministry of Justice are currently reviewing the enforcement industry with a view to introducing improvements there. I can confirm, as my noble friend the Secretary of State said the other day, that this is a process with various steps. The licence fee model stands as it is in the charter until 2027.

Photo of Lord Grade of Yarmouth Lord Grade of Yarmouth Chair, Gambling Industry Committee

My Lords, the switch from free licences for pensioners to the BBC having to pay for a proportion of those licences for the over-75s has put huge pressure on the finances of the BBC. This feels like another attempt to impoverish and weaken the BBC. I remind the Minister and the Government that the BBC is the cornerstone of the creative industries in this country, which is one of the fastest growing sectors of the UK economy. It has huge success in promoting the brand of Great Britain around the world and is a fantastic engine for social mobility. Weakening and impoverishing the BBC is so damaging to this country and should be abandoned immediately.

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The last thing that this Government want to do is weaken or abandon an asset as strong and important as the BBC. My noble friend the Secretary of State set out the process earlier today and it might be helpful to repeat that. She said, “What we are talking about today is the consultation on decriminalisation. The licence fee for the 2022 to 2027 period will be the next stage in terms of setting that and then there is the mid-charter review confirming that the obligations in the charter have been met”. The full charter review needs to be thought through and everything will be included within that, including the funding model, making sure that the BBC remains the asset that we all cherish, but in a very changed world.

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour

Will the Minister tell the House whether, under the cover of this consultation, the Government intend to renege on their promise to continue free TV licences for those over 75?

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The Government remain disappointed with the BBC’s decision to restrict the over-75 licence fee concession to those in receipt of pension credit.