BBC Funding - Statement

– in the House of Lords at 5:03 pm on 25th January 2022.

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The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Monday 17 January.

“Mr Speaker, under article 43 of the BBC’s royal charter, I am required to determine a funding settlement for the level of the licence fee for a period of at least five years from 1 April 2022. I am legally required to make my determination as far in advance as possible. I also highlight that, this year, the licence fee settlement has featured S4C prominently for the first time. In line with the recommendation from the independent review of S4C completed in 2018, the licence fee will be the sole source of public funding for S4C.

Negotiations began back in November 2020, and both I and my predecessor met the BBC on several occasions during this period to discuss this settlement. As part of those negotiations, the charter requires that I assess both the BBC’s commercial income and activities and the level of funding required so that the BBC can effectively fulfil its mission and public purposes. In addition, this Government set out our own relevant factors to consider during the charter review in 2015-16: evasion, commercial income, household growth and industry costs.

As the Prime Minister has said, the BBC is a great institution. It has a unique place in our cultural heritage. Beyond our shores, the BBC broadcasts our values and identities all over the world, reaching hundreds of millions every day. Likewise, the Welsh broadcaster S4C plays a unique and critical role in promoting the Welsh language, and in supporting our wider public service broadcasting landscape.

However, in reaching this settlement, I had to be realistic about the economic situation facing households up and down the country. The global cost of living is rising, and this Government are committed to supporting families as much as possible during these difficult times. Given that climate, we had to think very carefully about imposing any potential increase in the TV licence fee, particularly when any increase would expose families to the threat of bailiffs knocking on their door or criminal prosecution. When it comes to monthly bills, this is one of the few direct levers we have in our control as a Government. In the end, we simply could not justify putting extra pressure on the wallets of hard-working households.

Every organisation around the world is facing the challenge of inflation. I simply do not believe that those responsible for setting household bills should instinctively reach into the pockets of families across the country for just a little more every year to cover those costs. Today, I am announcing that the licence fee will be frozen for the next two years, and will rise in line with inflation for the following four years.

The BBC wanted the fee to rise to over £180 by the end of the settlement. Instead, it will remain fixed at £159 until April 2024. That is more money in the pockets of pensioners and of families who are struggling to make ends meet. We are supporting households when they need that support the most. This settlement sends an important message about keeping costs down while also giving the BBC what it needs to deliver on its remit. The approach to funding will be the same for the BBC and for S4C. However, I can announce that S4C will receive an additional £7.5 million funding per annum from 2022, to support the development of its digital offering. That is a 9% increase, following five years of frozen funding.

We believe this is a fair settlement for the BBC, it is a fair settlement for S4C and, most importantly, it is a fair settlement for licence fee payers all across the United Kingdom. Let us not forget that the BBC will continue to receive billions in annual public funding, allowing it to deliver its mission and public purposes and to continue doing what it does best.

To support the BBC even further in what is a fast-changing broadcasting landscape, the Government will more than double the borrowing limit of the BBC’s commercial arm to £750 million. That will enable the BBC to access private finance as it pursues an ambitious commercial growth strategy, boosting investment in the creative economy across the UK. But, as Tim Davie said in his first speech as director-general of the corporation, the BBC must be a ‘simpler, leaner organisation’ that offers ‘better value’ to licence fee payers. We agree with that. Ultimately, this settlement strikes the right balance between protecting households and allowing broadcasters to deliver their vital public responsibilities, while encouraging them to make further savings and efficiencies.

The licence fee settlement is only one step in our road map for reform of the BBC. In the last few months, I have made it clear that the BBC needs to address issues around impartiality and groupthink. Those problems were highlighted definitively by the recent Serota review. The BBC’s own leadership rightly recognised those findings in full and committed to deliver all the review’s recommendations in its 10-point action plan on impartiality and editorial standards. I have had constructive discussions with the BBC about those issues in recent months. The BBC now needs to put those words into action. It needs to convince the British public that those changes are being made, and to provide regular and transparent accounts of its progress.

We will shortly begin the mid-term review of the BBC’s charter, which will consider the overall governance and regulation of the BBC. A key part of that review will look at whether the BBC’s action plan on impartiality has, in fact, materially contributed to improving the organisation’s internal governance.

It is also time to look further into the future. As any serious commentator will tell you, the broadcasting landscape has changed beyond all recognition over the past decade. We are living in a world of streaming giants, on demand, pay per view and smart TVs. Technology is changing everything. Some 97% of homes already have superfast broadband. A family in Cumbria can stream five different movies in five different rooms in their house at any one time, and our gigabit rollout is transforming those networks even further. More than 65% of UK households now have access to the fastest connection on the planet.

As the tech has changed, so have audience habits, particularly among younger viewers, so it is time to begin asking those really serious questions about the long-term funding model of the BBC and whether a mandatory licence fee with criminal penalties for individual households is still appropriate. As we have said before, we will therefore undertake a review of the overall licence fee model. Those discussions will begin shortly.

The BBC has been entertaining and informing us for 100 years. I want it to continue to thrive and be a global beacon in the UK and in the decades to come, but this is 2022, not 1922. We need a BBC that is forward-looking and ready to meet the challenges of modern broadcasting; a BBC that can continue to engage the British public and command support from across the breadth of the UK, not just the London bubble; a BBC that can thrive alongside Netflix, Amazon Prime and all its other challengers that attract younger viewers. The licence fee settlement represents a significant step in that journey and in our wider reform of the BBC.

I look forward to continuing to work with the BBC and others across the industry over the coming years to secure the future of these vital British services. I commend this Statement to the House.”

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and International Trade) 5:14 pm, 25th January 2022

My Lords, in truth, we know that this Statement was about distraction—a vindictive distraction at that—away from the Prime Minister’s behaviour during lockdown, the Government’s unlawful VIP lane for Covid contracts and their continued refusal to deal with our country’s cost of living crisis.

The Secretary of State pleads that she is interested in the cost of living crisis; if she were, she would be telling the Prime Minister to reverse the cuts to universal credit, put a stop to the national insurance and tax hikes this April, back Labour’s VAT cut on fuel bills and follow the lead of the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, and raise the alarm about the £4 billion-worth of Covid-related fraud. Freezing the licence fee increase pales into insignificance when put alongside those issues.

Given the BBC’s stated desire to become a leaner outfit, and with the new ability of the corporation’s commercial arm to access more private finance, I can see why the Secretary of State believes there is a rationale for a freeze, but we do not necessarily agree, as it will have a significant impact on the BBC’s output. Surely, the Government’s discussions with the BBC should have been concluded before any decision or announcement was made. Secretary of State after Secretary of State has looked at alternatives to the licence fee and not managed to find a feasible solution. If there is one, we are, of course, happy to look at the detail, but why does this Secretary of State believe she will succeed where others have failed?

The Secretary of State has expressed unease that pensioners face punishment if they do not pay the licence fee, so she must be appalled to find out that it was her own Government who stopped subsidising free licences for the over-75s. She cited concerns about impartiality and groupthink, an area in which, in my view, the BBC is very self-aware—perhaps even more so than the Government. Both sides of our political divide often accuse the BBC of bias, which probably means that, on balance, it is getting things about right. During the current government crisis, it has seemed to us that ITV, Sky and Channel 4 have, if anything, been even more questioning of the Government’s credibility.

In general, the BBC is rightly viewed by most as a national treasure and an international icon, so perhaps the Minister can say why the Government are so determined to undermine it. You can almost set your watch by the Government’s constant threats to public service broadcasting. The knock-on impact of the freeze—a real-terms cut of some £285 million by the end of the settlement period—is likely to have a larger economic cost than what the BBC loses by way of income. As we saw at the height of the pandemic, reduced commissions put enormous strain on the production and creative ecosystem, which has been left far more fragile than it was pre-pandemic.

The fact is that the BBC acts to underpin our creative sector. It the Government start chipping away at its foundations, they will undermine the structure and fabric of our cultural institutions and a big part of what makes the cultural industries so profitable and popular internationally. At present, production costs are spiralling due to inflation and increased competition from other broadcasters. The BBC has already trimmed quite a lot of the fat behind the scenes, so the impact of further cuts is likely to be more obvious to viewers. Will the Minister speculate and tell us today where he thinks the cuts needed for the BBC to balance its books should come from?

To give the Minister credit, in recent debates he has defended the work of the BBC and the way it is funded. I appreciate that decisions on funding statements are taken at a higher pay grade by his superiors, but did the Minister know that they had been taken and that this announcement was due? Perhaps he can share with us today his feelings when he saw the tweet about the future of the BBC’s funding and the threatened end of the licence fee. The Treasury has indicated that it will not chase down the £4 billion fraudulently claimed from its coronavirus support schemes at the height of the pandemic, so why not reverse that—track down the money in order to properly fund the BBC and other services and reduce, or at least offset, the planned tax increases that will hit family budgets far harder than the licence fee ever could?

We need a stable and secure funding base for the BBC, a more co-operative and collegiate approach from the Secretary of State, and a proper plan in place to effectively review the BBC’s charter and address the long-term issues that the Secretary of State raised about the dynamic and fast-changing nature of the digital, media and communications sector, which contributes so much to this country, its national life and our economy. This Statement was about little of the above, and I am afraid that it was much more about the shambles that, hour by hour and day by day, this Government have descended into.

Photo of Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

My Lords, the BBC is 100 this year—what a birthday present from the Secretary of State this is. What possible reason is there for this attack on an institution that is the backbone of our world-beating creative industries, doubling its money, so far as investment in our creative economy goes?

Does the Minister not agree that the effect of initial BBC spending multiplies as it ripples through the economy, from region to region and sector to sector? Does he agree that it is pivotal in supporting our creative industries through innovation, skills and training, which directly feed into the Government’s levelling-up agenda, making programmes across the country that boost local economies and utilise local skills? BBC investment over decades has helped to develop significant local creative hubs across the UK, not to mention a network of local radio and TV, ensuring that a spotlight is shone on important regional issues and essential local news.

Does the Minister agree that 43p a day, which is the cost of the licence fee, offers exceptional value to all audiences across the UK, supplying via television, radio and the internet British content that is universally available to everyone across the country? Cuts will affect everyone but especially those with only free-to-air TV and radio, who tend to be less well off and older. Does the Minister not also agree that the BBC has been a lifeline through the pandemic, providing both news that the public trusted and essential support, through Bitesize, for those home-schooling?

Does the Minister agree that the World Service and the programmes that it exports, which showcase this country’s creative talent, are central to promoting the UK around the world, and are the envy of the world? The BBC was described by our Prime Minister, when he was Foreign Secretary, as

“the single greatest and most effective ambassador for our culture and our values”.

The DCMS is not the department for social policy, as the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, has mentioned; there are more direct ways to help those who are trying to deal with the burden of inflation plus increased energy bills. So will the Minister please listen to the words of Richard Sharp, chair of the BBC and a member of his party:

“I believe that the case for a well-funded, modern and efficient national broadcaster has not diminished over the past decade, but grown”?

Have the Government assessed the impact of this funding freeze on the BBC? Given that 95% of BBC spend goes into content and its delivery—despite what the Daily Mail says—what would the Minister be happy to do without? What about an impact assessment of this decision on the UK creative economy as a whole? Finally, does he not agree that these decisions cannot continue to be made behind closed doors—we believe that there is disagreement within the Cabinet about the announcement—and that we need an independent licence fee commission?

Photo of Lord Fowler Lord Fowler Non-affiliated

My Lords, I agree with a great deal of what—

Noble Lords:

No.

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for their questions. I will deal first with the question of timing and the assertion that this may be to do with other matters. I point out that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State is under an obligation, under Article 43 of the BBC’s royal charter, to determine a funding settlement for the level of the licence fee for a period of “at least five years” from 1 April this year. She is also required to make her determination as far in advance of April as possible—that is what she set out in her Statement to another place on 17 January.

I welcome the focus of the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, on the cost of living. I was not clear from his remarks whether he agrees with the Government’s decision to announce the freeze in the fee so that the licence fee remains at £159 for two years, before rising in line with inflation—or whether he would have supported the alternative, which was for the licence fee to rise to £180 by 2027. But I welcome his recognition that there is a rationale for the decision that the Secretary of State has taken.

As the noble Baroness says, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is not a social policy department as some others are, but this is one area in which we are able to help people with the bills they face as the cost of living rises. Again, it was not clear from her Benches whether the decision to help people met with her party’s support.

Across the country, businesses and households face rising bills and are tightening their belts. It is right to expect the BBC to do the same and to support people as they do so. The decision we have taken follows extensive discussions with the BBC—negotiations that began as far back as November 2020—which involved my right honourable friend and her predecessor as Secretary of State and continued until, most recently, 12 January, the Wednesday before she made her Statement in another place. I was aware of those discussions and welcome the decision to help people with the rising bills they face.

On the idea that this attacks or undermines the BBC, which the noble Baroness and the noble Lord said, I simply point out that the settlement provides the BBC with some £3.7 billion in licence fee funding this year and £23 billion over the duration of the settlement period. It also gives the BBC financial certainty for the next six years, to the end of the current charter period, so that it can continue doing its excellent work, which I have been very glad to pay tribute to in your Lordships’ House before; I continue to do so.

I agree with the noble Baroness in her remarks quoting the Prime Minister, who, since he left the Foreign Office and moved to Downing Street, has repeated the comments about the value of the BBC—not just the World Service but at home—and the lifeline it provided to many people during the pandemic. That is why we have given the settlement that we have.

We also gave a generous settlement to S4C, which was set out in the Statement. S4C plays a vital role in supporting the Welsh economy, culture and society, and the Government decided to award it a £7.5 million per year uplift from the licence fee to support its digital development. In total, that will provide S4C with approximately £88.8 million in licence fee funding per annum, which will rise in line with increases to the licence fee from April.

We believe this is a fair settlement for the BBC, S4C and licence fee payers across the United Kingdom. It strikes the right balance between protecting households and allowing the BBC and S4C to deliver their vital public responsibilities. The settlement will encourage the BBC to make further savings and efficiencies as it becomes a leaner organisation that delivers better value to licence fee payers.

The Government will also more than double the borrowing limit of the BBC’s commercial arm to £750 million, which will enable the BBC to access private finance as it pursues an ambitious commercial growth strategy and to boost investment in the creative economy across the UK. The noble Lord and the noble Baroness are right to point to the important part it plays in the wider creative economy.

The BBC is a beacon for news reporting and the arts around the world, and has a unique place in our cultural heritage. We want it to continue to thrive in the decades to come, and to thrive alongside its competitors. That is why, as the Secretary of State also announced, the Government believe that it is the right time to begin asking serious questions about the long-term funding model of the BBC. We need to ask whether a mandatory licence fee is still appropriate, particularly as audience viewing habits have changed, especially among younger viewers.

The context of that debate is important. Over the last three years, the number of licence fees paid has declined by some 700,000. We need to acknowledge that the criminal sanction for non-payment of the licence fee can cause considerable stress and anxiety for people, particularly at a time when the cost of living is rising.

I was staggered to learn that almost one-third of convictions of women in this country are for non-payment of the licence fee. A growing number of women are getting criminal records and some are being imprisoned for non-payment of the fines imposed. These are the questions we should be asking and the debate we should be having as we undertake the review of the overall licence fee model. As the Secretary of State set out in her Statement in another place, this is the start of a discussion. I saw in the papers this weekend that the former Labour Culture Secretary, James Purnell, a senior executive at the BBC until recently, has started to engage in that debate in a very thoughtful way. I look forward to having that debate with noble Lords from across the House, but I hope they will agree that it is an important discussion to have.

Photo of Lord Fowler Lord Fowler Non-affiliated 5:30 pm, 25th January 2022

My Lords, I apologise for being premature, but I wanted to congratulate the noble Baroness on what she said, which my noble friend repeated. I have no objection whatever to re-examining the basis of the licence fee. That is a sensible thing to do, but what concerns me is the accompanying statements made by the Secretary of State for Culture, which seem to suggest that this has been more about a political battle between the Government and the BBC than the future of the corporation. I therefore hope that the noble Lord will dissociate himself from that campaign and say that that is not the policy of Her Majesty’s Government.

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

My Lords, this is not part of any political discussion, other than the politics of ensuring, in the short term, that people are assisted with the rising cost of living and, in the long term, ensuring that the BBC has a sustainable model to continue to produce the excellent output that it does, both at home and around the world. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State paid tribute to it in her Statement and we all continue to do so. It is because we want to see it thrive that we want to make sure that it has the best sustainable model for the long term.

Photo of Baroness Blackstone Baroness Blackstone Independent Labour

My Lords, is the Minister aware of just how much the BBC licence fee payer gets for his or her relatively low outlay on the licence fee? Let me just list the services: 10 TV services; 10 national radio services; 40 local radio stations; BBC iPlayer; BBC education programmes; the World Service; the BBC website and much more. Why are the Government jeopardising the quality of these many, varied services by their mean-spirited decision to freeze the licence fee for two years, thereby leading to a real-terms cut in BBC revenue? The explanation given in the Statement and implied by what the Minister said earlier—that the Government want to put more money into hard-pressed households’ pockets—just does not make sense, given the trivial amount entailed per household. If that is really what the Government want to do, I am sure the Minister will agree that abandoning their increase in national insurance payments, which really would make a difference, would be a better approach.

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I do not think a settlement of more than £23 billion can be called mean-spirited. The noble Baroness is right to point to the wide range of things that the BBC does, but it is right, as we decide what the cost to the licence fee payer should be, that we look at those services in the context of the changing landscape and the other ways that people are consuming their news content and their entertainment provision and make sure that the BBC continues to be funded in a way that maintains its excellence and is fair to the people who pay for it.

Photo of Lord Carlile of Berriew Lord Carlile of Berriew Crossbench

My Lords, notwithstanding the success of S4C, does the Minister agree that BBC Cymru Wales makes an extraordinary, virtuous and unifying contribution to the life of people in Wales? Will he give an undertaking to the House that nothing will occur to undermine the quality of public service broadcasting through the BBC in and for Wales, given the huge contribution that BBC Cymru Wales makes to news, popular culture and sport for the people of the Principality?

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

My Lords, as the BBC is operationally and editorially independent, it is up to it to decide how it spends its settlement, but I know it will want to maintain its excellent reputation throughout the United Kingdom in representing and delivering an excellent service to people right across the British Isles, as S4C does in Wales, as the noble Lord says.

Photo of Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone Conservative

Will the Minister advise the Secretary of State that it would give greater veracity to her criticisms of the BBC if she refrained from commenting on party-political bias? That is the job of the party chairman. As Secretary of State, she is the sponsor for the broadcasting industry and I suggest she leaves criticisms of party-political bias to a different authority.

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

My Lords, as we touched on in our debate on the BBC instigated by the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, before Christmas, it has been the hallmark of many Administrations to speak about the BBC with affection and sometimes criticism, as is the case with a much-cherished 100 year-old institution. The Statement that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State set out is the culmination of negotiations which began in November 2020, focused on helping licence fee payers in the short term and setting out a sustainable model for the BBC over the long term.

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I cannot think of a time in the 100-year history of the BBC when an announcement of its future has been so politically motivated and accompanied by such ridiculous statements from the Minister responsible on Twitter. The one thing to grasp from the Statement was the offer of a proper, open, fair study of the problem of how we fund the BBC. If she wants to redeem her reputation, it would be by establishing such an independent, open commission to look at this problem and report, so that the next decision can be made in an informed way. Since we have just heard from one Bottomley, I shall quote another, the Father of the House, Peter Bottomley, my pair when I was in the other place. He said:

The Conservative approach is to keep what is good, what works—and to improve whenever possible.”

What better terms of reference for such a future study of the funding of the BBC?

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

My Lords, Parliament is lucky to have a Bottomley in each House and I have the pleasure of calling them both friends. I will take the noble Lord’s suggestion about how we might have the debate that the Secretary of State has said we want to have about future funding back to the department. I welcome the fact that he is beginning to engage with it and look forward to having that debate with noble Lords across the House.

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

My Lords, I have some difficulty accepting the criticism of intimidation of the BBC from noble Lords opposite. I seem to recall that the most dangerous moment in the whole history of the BBC was when Prime Minister Blair and his untrained attack Doberman, Alastair Campbell, attacked the BBC over the Gilligan broadcast about weapons of mass destruction. It brought the corporation to its knees to the extent that the chairman and the director-general resigned within 24 hours. The Blair Government were so desperate at what they had done to the BBC that they sent for me to go in and try to sort it out—that is how desperate they were.

That said, one would get the notion from listening to some of the comments around this House this evening that the BBC is impoverished by this settlement. Does the Minister agree that £3.7 billion in a very crowded marketplace of public intervention is a surprisingly good settlement? I wish those in the BBC who asked for more money from the Government would watch their own news bulletins and see what is going on, with people having to decide whether to heat or eat, and the increased use of food banks. There is a complete lack of reality about what is going on in Britain with this regressive tax. I believe in the BBC and I stand with everybody in this House who supports it, but this is not the time for it to be asking for more money. Does the Minister agree that the Secretary of State’s decision to fire the starting pistol for the big debate about what we want from the BBC and how we pay for it is a very good step in the right direction and very timely?

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

My noble friend makes two pertinent points on the basis of his considerable experience. As I said, it is not unusual for this much-loved, much-cherished national institution to attract political comment from all quarters from time to time. That is as it should be. We all do it from a position of wanting the best for the corporation and to ensure that it can survive and thrive for its next 100 years. My noble friend is right to reinforce the point that £3.7 billion from licence fee payers this year, at a time when people’s bills and costs of living are rising, is a fair settlement that enables the BBC to continue doing the excellent things that it does, but in a way that shows that it understands how businesses and households across the country are having to tighten their belts—looking at how they can do what they do more efficiently and get more bang for their buck.

Photo of Baroness Hoey Baroness Hoey Non-affiliated

My Lords, I welcome the Statement by the Secretary of State, which will have been welcomed outside in the country if not necessarily in your Lordships’ House. Does the Minister not agree that, in this day and age, when someone might buy a television with absolutely no intention of ever watching the BBC—given all the other choices that they will pay for—it is surely time for that proper debate on whether we can continue to fund the BBC in this arbitrary way that makes it impossible for some people to afford it?

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The noble Baroness is right that the way people are consuming their media is changing, and changing rapidly. I have spoken about the 700,000 fewer licence fees that have been bought over the last three years; that change is happening rapidly. It is essential that we have this debate so that we can protect the BBC to make sure that it continues to thrive alongside, and as part of, a changing media landscape. That is the reason why we want to start having this discussion well in advance of the next charter period.

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

Listening to this debate, I think it is pretty clear that nobody who has spoken so far has suggested that there should not be any further consideration of how the BBC is funded, or that there should not be regular consideration of whether it is being supported in the right way. The noble Lord, Lord Grade, made a perfectly legitimate point when he referred back to actions during the time of the Blair Government. In doing so, he underlined the point that Governments of all colours and at all times have been periodically extremely irritated by the BBC. I do not refer to any particular accusation, but accusing the BBC specifically of party political bias is a very different matter from being irritated by how it behaves from time to time.

My questions to the Minister are these: does he think that, as this debate proceeds, it can now be conducted in a tone of generosity and impartiality rather than in the terms set by, shall we say, the Daily Mail? Will he also answer the questions that came from various Members of your Lordships’ House about whether he thinks that, on its current settlement, the BBC can, and indeed should, continue to deliver everything that it currently delivers? And if it cannot, what does he think it should stop doing?

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

As I have said, the BBC is operationally as well as editorially independent, so it is up to the BBC to decide how it spends its settlement and how it continues to deliver for licence fee payers. That is a decision that is being repeated by many businesses and in many households across the country as people tighten their belts; it is important that they do so.

We spoke in our previous debate about the dangers of groupthink and the BBC’s own acknowledgment of the work that has to be done to ensure that it fully reflects the country that it serves, with the Serota review and other things. That work is to be welcomed and I think it was welcomed across your Lordships’ House. This is not a matter of party politics but of making sure that the BBC reflects the country that it serves and the people whose hard-earned money pays for its services.

Photo of Lord Framlingham Lord Framlingham Conservative

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, if the BBC is to justify its fee, its news programmes must be honest and straightforward? Last weekend, there was a demonstration in London by people who were against compulsory vaccination. The BBC news reported it as being attended by “hundreds of people”. I saw it myself, repeated more than once—“hundreds of people”—when in fact there were thousands and thousands of people at the demonstration who could be clearly seen on another channel at the same time as the BBC was saying that there were only hundreds. What does that do to the BBC’s credibility, and what will all those people who attended that demonstration, or watched the comparison on television, think about the BBC and the licence fee?

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The number of people attending protests is often disputed by the people who take part, the police and the reports that are made of them, so I hope that my noble friend will forgive me if I am not drawn into my assessment of the protest or of the reports. The BBC is editorially independent. It reports the news in an independent way; it grapples with often highly politically charged issues as it does so, and it has a means for people who feel that its bulletins are not fair to make their voices heard and seek redress. That is one of the reasons why it is so cherished.

Photo of Lord Clement-Jones Lord Clement-Jones Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Digital)

The Minister did not answer the question of my noble friend Lady Bonham-Carter as to the consequences of the licence fee not being adjusted for inflation over the next two years. What is he suggesting the BBC should cut?

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

My Lords, I have said that, as the BBC is operationally independent, it is for the BBC to decide how it spends its settlement of £23 billion over the settlement period, and how it serves the people who are funding it.

Photo of Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Non-affiliated

My Lords, the Minister seems to indicate that freezing the BBC licence fee could be used as a cost-saving measure to help those who have to meet rising costs as part of the cost of living increase. Does the Minister not agree that it would be much better if the Government were to reduce, and not bring forward the increase in, national insurance contributions—as a measure of dealing with the cost of living increases and ensuring that the BBC continues to provide a good level of fair and equal broadcasting right throughout the UK?

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The noble Baroness will, I hope, appreciate that decisions on other departments’ areas and how the Government can help people with the cost of living are not for me. However, I hope I infer from her comments that she welcomes the decision that the Secretary of State has taken to do our bit to help people with the rising costs of what otherwise would have been a licence fee increase to £180 by 2027.

Photo of Lord Watson of Invergowrie Lord Watson of Invergowrie Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

My Lords, the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, and the noble Lord, Lord McNally, about the Secretary of State should perhaps be put in the context of the fact that she has a history of attacking the BBC, and her appointment to her current post was akin to giving a child the keys to the sweet shop.

Almost 80% of school-age children use BBC Bitesize, the UK’s only free-to-use comprehensive education resource portal as a regular part of their learning. During the Covid peaks, BBC lockdown learning attracted an average of four and a half million users to the online resources specially developed to support home schooling at a time when the Government were failing to provide enough laptops or broadband to disadvantaged families. No commercial broadcaster would provide these services gratis. Has any assessment been made of the impact of the licence fee freeze on the BBC’s education output?

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I agree with the noble Lord that the services provided by BBC Bitesize and more widely were a lifeline to people including those who were home schooling during lockdown, as I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter. However, I point to the comments of my right honourable friend the Secretary of state in another place when she made this Statement. She was very glad to defend the BBC and to say that she wanted it to continue to thrive for another 100 years. That is why we want to have the open discussion that we need to make sure that its funding model can sustain it in a changing landscape; that is important and, as I have said, I look forward to having that debate with noble Lords.

Photo of Lord Shipley Lord Shipley Chair, Youth Unemployment Committee, Chair, Youth Unemployment Committee

My Lords, in her Statement, the Secretary of State said that she

“had to be realistic about the economic situation facing households up and down the country.”—[Official Report, Commons, 17/1/22; col. 39.]

What consideration might the Government give to introducing a rebate scheme for those on lower incomes, as applies with council tax, so that the licence fee might better reflect the ability to pay?

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I will take the noble Lord’s interesting point back to the department and discuss it with my colleagues there.