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I beg to move,
That this House
has considered e-petitions 234627, 234797 and 235653 relating to the BBC.
It is a great pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. All three petitions relate to the BBC. One calls for a public inquiry on what the signatories perceive as bias in the BBC, another calls for the abolition of the licence fee, and the third is about the restoration of free TV licences for the over-75s.
As we have previously debated the licence fee, and with it a number of accusations of bias, I do not propose to spend much time on it this afternoon, because lots of people want to speak. But let me be clear: as Harold Wilson said, public inquiries take minutes and last for years, and they seldom solve anything—certainly nothing as subjective as perceived bias. Although the BBC sometimes gets things wrong, as any organisation does, I do not believe it is inherently biased in its news and coverage of current affairs. Indeed, we ought to remember that the BBC’s news coverage is looked at around the world as a beacon of straightforward, unbiased news reporting. As a country, we ought to be proud of that. If it has a bias, it is probably towards London, as those of us who have sat through items about London stations on the national news will know. It does not reflect the regions and nations of this country well.
The hon. Lady just said that we ought to be proud of the BBC. Does she acknowledge that, as a country, we are very proud of it? Not only is it one of this country’s most popular institutions, but it is a source of great credit for this country around the world. Whatever mistakes it makes, they should be framed by that overall attitude.
I agree. The reason for the BBC’s popularity is that we maintain the model of public service broadcasting. People who want to get rid of the licence fee ought to remember that a public service broadcaster is free of commercial and sponsorship influence in its news, and that it provides a far wider range of channels and radio stations than that provided by broadcasters that aim at niche markets. In fact, the BBC’s output has to cater for a whole range of tastes, including minority interests.
There is no doubt that the decision to end free TV licences for the over-75s, and to restrict them to people in receipt of pension credit, has damaged hugely the BBC’s reputation. The decision has been met with almost universal condemnation. In fact, only the Taxpayers Alliance, which seems to get a lot of its funding from people who do not pay British tax, is in favour of it. Nevertheless, the real villain of the piece is not the BBC, but the Government. In 2017 they fought an election on a manifesto that promised to maintain free TV licences for the duration of this Parliament, knowing full well that in 2015 they had entered into an agreement with the BBC that made it impossible.
Does my hon. Friend agree that people are rightly outraged by that decision? They voted for the Conservative party because it had that promise in its manifesto. More than 4,000 pensioners in Barnsley are due to lose their TV licences, and a huge number of people have got in touch with me about the issue.
My hon. Friend is right. The BBC was very foolish to accept that agreement with the Government, who did what we have seen them do so often: devolve the blame for their cuts. We have seen that time and again, particularly in relation to older people. The Government say they want a good system of adult social care, but they have consistently cut the funding for councils to pay for it, especially in the poorest areas and in those with the longest legacy of industrial diseases and ill health.
Have we not found through this that many people who are eligible for pension credit are not getting it? Those who are exempt will not have to pay for TV licences. Some £2,936,000 of pension credit is not being claimed in my constituency, so should we not write to people about that on the back of TV licences? Is it not time that we fixed both the BBC and the issue of pension credit?
I will come in a moment to that very good point. Let us consider how else the Government have dealt with these issues. All people of pension age are entitled to a free bus pass, which was brought in by the Labour Government in 2001 and extended to cover the whole of England in 2008. The scheme is currently underfunded to the tune of about £652 million, because the Government keep reimbursing people based on 2005-06 fares. How long before it disappears?
A manifesto promise broken by this Government reads:
“We will maintain all other pensioner benefits, including free bus passes, eye tests, prescriptions and TV licences, for the duration of this parliament.”
Does my hon. Friend agree that this broken promise is letting down not just older people, but trust in politics?
I absolutely agree. We can see a pattern in the agreement with the BBC. The BBC was to take on the funding of free TV licences as the Government gradually withdrew their contribution, and then it would take on all such funding from 2020-21. In 2017-18, the cost of those licences was about £655 million. Last year the Government paid £468 million from the Department for Work and Pensions, and this year they will pay £247 million. That is an unsustainable funding model, and the Government knew that, or at least they ought to have known that—if they did not, then they are even more incompetent than I thought— when they entered into the agreement with the BBC.
To fund the licences, the BBC would need to close down channels or radio stations. A number of columnists have written about the money paid to the BBC’s top earners. Some are grossly overpaid, and in my view—this is entirely subjective—some of the so-called talent are not very talented. However, restricting the top rate of pay to £100,000 would not meet the cost of the licences. Again, the Government must have known that, but they want to deflect the blame. They knew there would have been an outcry had they tried to amend or abolish the scheme, so they sent it off to the BBC. When the changes were made, they said, “Nothing to do with us, mate.” They are the “not me, guv” Government—the Arthur Daleys of public administration.
It is the Government who made the decision on TV licences, and it will be really damaging to older people in this country. If someone cannot get out and about, and no one visits them, the TV is their companion. If someone cannot afford to go out and socialise, the TV is their entertainment, their window on the world and a way of keeping their mind active. Unfortunately, that is the lot of many older people in this country. We do not respect or value our older people as we should. I declare an interest, because I am heading that way myself.
As the hon. Lady will know, people of my generation always used to say, “Well, this is the BBC. It’s gospel. It’s the truth.” Does she share my concern that the BBC is not now as impartial as it should be and that we need to instigate reform in order to alter that perception, so that we can go back to the good old days of unbiased reporting of fact rather than personal perceptions and opinions?
I am afraid that I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman—the BBC produces very good news coverage. People sometimes see bias when they are being told things that they do not want to hear—we must remember that.
Many older people—half of over-75s, in fact—are disabled. Age UK estimates that three in 10 are living in poverty or just above the poverty line. For those people, TV is a lifeline. Many of them live alone. I have one elderly friend who leaves the TV on almost all the time because it is another voice in the house.
Not yet. I need to make some progress, as many hon. Members are waiting to speak.
The TV is another voice in a house that was once full of people and very active but is now silent. To remove free TV licences from such people is the most mean-spirited of Government cuts. It will make lonely people lonelier—15% of our older people are lonely—and it will further isolate those who are already isolated.
It has been argued that restricting free TV licences to those in receipt of pension credit is somehow fairer because they are more deserving—the idea of the deserving and the undeserving is very 19th century—but there are several answers to that proposal. First, by the time someone is 75, they have paid their dues to society: they have worked, paid their taxes, and many have brought up children. Giving those people a free TV licence is a way to give something back as a small recognition of their past contribution.
Another argument is that we need a mix of targeted and universal benefits, but the latter—as the Government are discovering—are much harder to cut, because most of the time they are a guarantee of continuance. That argument is based on the myth that there are lots of wealthy pensioners. Recently, a lot of publicity was given to research claiming to show that older people were on average £20 a week better off than those in work, but much of the coverage did not mention that those were the figures after housing costs. If we look at the figures before housing costs, we see that people in work are better off.
Yes, many people in the older age groups own their own homes outright—the figure is about 40% of those born between 1945 and 1965—but that leaves a lot of people paying rent. Some 30% are still paying mortgages, while those who own their homes outright have forgone other spending to pay for them. What do we have now—a Tory Government punishing thrift?
Those who attended the public consultation pointed out very forcibly that in many areas older people have more expenses than younger people. Their heating bills are bigger because they are often at home all day and feel the cold more. Many pay for social care; one lady, whose husband is in a nursing home, is seeing her savings disappear before her eyes because of that expense.
Those figures are for those on median incomes, which means that half of all pensioners are below that level. Age UK states that three in 10 over-75s are in poverty or just above the poverty line—that means 1.9 million people—and 20% cannot afford to go out and socialise even once a month, while 37% cannot afford a holiday away from home.
One reason not to tie TV licences to pension credit is that pension credit uptake has been stuck at 63% for years. As my hon. Friend Alex Sobel said, that means that a lot of money goes unclaimed, including more than £4 million in my constituency and £3.5 billion nationally. The Government could have done something about that—an uptake campaign, for instance, or a simplification of the application process—but they have not done so because the lack of uptake means that they save not only on pension credit, but on the benefits that come with it.
Another reason not to tie free TV licences to pension credit is that those who will be hit hardest are just above the level for claiming pension credit and will lose far more of their income than wealthier people. Age UK estimates that 40% of over-75s would either not be able to afford a TV licence or could afford it only by cutting back on food or heating, for example. Those to whom we spoke made it clear that their generation were brought up to pay their bills and that they will pay them even if they have to cut back on something else. Letters from the licensing authority are already dropping through people’s letterboxes a year in advance, telling them that they will have to pay and causing real worry to many people. I wonder how long it will be until the scammers appear, ringing people and sending emails to say, “We are just checking your television licence. Give us your bank details.” That will happen—in fact, I am told that it is already happening in some areas.
Do we really want to live in the kind of country where pensioners go without food to pay for a TV licence, or go to jail for not having one? We recently celebrated our D-day veterans and quite rightly reflected on the debt that the country owes that generation. We cannot repay that debt by taking away free television licences. What will happen to those in care? At the moment, people in care homes get a discounted licence, but the regulations refer specifically to those under-75 because the over-75s were already deemed to receive free licences.
The BBC probably did not know that, which brings me to the important question of who should decide social policy. I cannot think of any way to frame that question such that the BBC is the answer. The BBC is not equipped to do it, does not have enough information to do it, and should not have to do it. It is a matter for Government and for Parliament.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. She makes some very valid points, but she is letting the BBC off the hook and acting as an apologist for it. Does she recall that at the 2015 charter renewal, the BBC said that it was delighted with the terms of the charter; delighted about getting an inflation-linked increase to the licence fee; and delighted about being let off having to fund the roll-out of superfast broadband? It is now reneging on its commitment to the over-75s.
It is not the BBC but the Government who are reneging on their promises to the electorate, which were made as recently as 2017—it is as simple as that.
The Government should consider taking back responsibility for funding free licences. That would cost £740 million by 2020-21, which sounds like a lot, but is a drop in the ocean compared with most Government expenditure and with the spending proposals made by the Conservative leadership candidates. Mr Hunt says that he will cut corporation tax to 12.5%, which would be one of the lowest rates in the developed world and would cost £13 billion. Boris Johnson—I was going to say “for Henley,” but he does move about a lot. [Interruption.] I apologise to John Howell. The right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip says that he will raise the threshold for the 40% rate of tax. That would cost £9 billion, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies says most of the benefit will go to the top 10% of earners. I have heard those on the Government Benches say that change would protect those on middle incomes. They need to get real. The median income in this country is not £50,000. It is not even £40,000. Last year it was £28,400, and that is hugely inflated because incomes at the top end include large bonuses. There is a choice. Does anyone in this Chamber need a tax cut? We might like one—
I am about to wind up, so no.
We might like a tax cut, but we do not need one. There is a choice. Tax is the price we pay for being in a civilised society. Speaking personally, I would rather forgo a tax cut and protect our older people properly. I know what side I am on, and I know what side my hon. Friends are on. In fact, I know what side all the Opposition parties are on. The question is for those on the Government Benches.
If Government Members want to stop this happening—I think some of them genuinely do—they have to pressurise their own Ministers to stop this nonsense, take control of free TV licences, amend the legislation and look after our older people properly. They should do it because that is what they promised to do and because, as my hon. Friend Tom Watson has said, we cannot means-test for loneliness and disability. But most of all, they should do it because it is the right thing to do. They will be judged on whether they keep their promises, and this is one they certainly have not kept. The blame is not with the BBC, which, as I have said, was crass to accept the settlement in the first place. The blame lies firmly with the Government.
Order. A number of people want to take part in the debate. I know we have three hours, but I want the winding-up speeches to begin at about two minutes to 7. I will not impose a time limit, but I say to hon. Members: bear that in mind and consider your colleagues. I call John Howell.
Thank you, Mr Wilson. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I suppose I should start by declaring an interest. For a number of years I worked as a presenter for BBC World Service television. I presented such well-known programmes as “World Business Report” and “World Business Review”, which I am sure trip off the memory of those who managed to catch them. I was not one of the mega-rich presenters. Helen Jones spoke of people in the talent pool who do not have much talent. I like to think that I did have the talent but was not paid enough for it. However, anyone who had that role realised that it was a wonderful role to have, because they could walk down any high street in the UK and nobody would recognise them, but when they got off the plane in Delhi they would be mobbed, because that was the distribution of the programme.
As a presenter at the BBC, I was made very aware of its editorial policies. I like to think that I did not infringe those policies at all during my time as a presenter, so I do not think an accusation of bias on my part would have been either made or appropriate. I fully accept that the BBC is not a perfect organisation. I fully accept that it makes mistakes. However, as my right hon. Friend Damian Green said—he is no longer in his place—it is an enduring British institution that carries much weight and is held in much esteem by people in this country.
When I was a presenter at the BBC, few would have doubted that it was value for money—I cannot recall the issue ever being raised. However, it is raised in the BBC’s annual report for 2018—and it is glossed over somewhat. That report states that, based on the BBC’s survey of people who watch it, its value for money rating was six out of 10. The very next words of the report state that that is “within target”. That is an absurd thing to say. It is absurd to describe getting only six out of 10 as remaining “within target”. Far more needs to be done before the BBC can achieve value for money.
I suspect that the value for money argument is influenced principally by three factors. The first is the news coverage and whether there is an appreciation of bias in that. I suppose that comes down mostly to whether the BBC is biased in one way or the other in its coverage of Brexit. Personally, given the way Brexit has divided the country, I think it would be difficult not to see BBC presenters divided in the same way.
The second factor is the range of content. A constituent contacted me to say that he objected to the way a programme he was watching on one BBC channel suddenly switched to another so something else—I think it was the tennis from Wimbledon—could be run. That is not an acceptable way of behaving.
The third factor is the arguments about salaries and the gender pay gap. Going back a few years, the 2013-14 annual report asked for a reduction in the overall cost of talent. I cannot see that any appreciable change took place between the publication of the 2013-14 report and the current year. I happen to know that the director-general is working on that, but we need to see progress pretty quickly.
Looking at the range of content, which is one of the arguments I suspect people may have used to justify the BBC’s value for money, I shall point out two programmes. The first is “Bodyguard”. I thought that was a fantastic programme, and it will have been of interest to all of us in the Chamber, covering the subjects it did, but it was made by a production company owned by ITV. I will say a little more about that, and about how the nature of the media industry is changing, in a minute.
Secondly, in the field of investigative journalism, I praise the “Panorama” programme that covered the issue of antisemitism. I watched it from end to end and became more and more disturbed as I watched. I noticed that the hon. Member for Warrington North said bias can be seen when we hear what we do not want to hear. That is a prime example of bias being shown, because it is clearly something that people do not want to hear. I thought that was a very good programme, and it is one that I have recommended that people should watch on iPlayer.
I mentioned that “Bodyguard” was produced by an ITV production company. That illustrates in part the changing nature of the media industry. When I was the chief executive of a production company, I went over to New York to see the foreign editor of Fox. I said to him, “I’ve come here to sell you some lovely programmes that I’ve made about foreign and interesting places”—places such as Mongolia. I was the first journalist into Mongolia to interview the new democratically elected president. He looked at me and said, “Foreign—you mean Californian?” That line would not be appropriate today. The world has changed, and the media world has completely changed.
One area in which the BBC competes is online programming. We have seen it compete fully against Netflix, with quite a lot of dissatisfaction in working out the value for money score from Netflix. BritBox is coming online shortly from ITV, so there will be even more competition in this area. Whether in such circumstances the BBC can maintain its position on the licence fee is certainly open to question.
The commercial element in the BBC is not new. We tend to think of the BBC as having no commercial advertising. That is simply wrong. BBC World Service television carried substantial commercial advertising, and I did not find that it interrupted the flow of my presenting in the slightest, and nor did viewers find that it interrupted their enjoyment of the programmes.
Would my hon. Friend note that Channel 4 is also a public service broadcaster but it is not in receipt of any of the licence fee? It funds itself completely from advertising.
I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. The idea of keeping out commercial advertising was fine 50 years ago, and even 20 years ago, but in today’s world it needs to be looked at again in the context of how the BBC will function.
I was going to say a few things about free TV licences, but Helen Jones has said many of them already, so I will not comment.
I think this is a fault of both the Government and the BBC. I have told the director-general that—he happens to be a constituent of mine—and that is the position I will take. Just before my right hon. Friend Mr Vaizey comes in with a witty comment, that is not sitting on the fence; it is a position that I fully hold. The BBC has done itself no good at all in how it is has gone about dealing with the TV licence.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I recently wrote to 10,000 constituents to ask for their thoughts on the free TV licence. I will read out some of their replies:
“I lost my wife in January and now I spent a lot of time alone. Having the TV on in the background is like having someone with me. I do not know what I would do without it.”
“My husband died two years ago. I can’t move well enough to leave the house on my own. TV is the only company I have. Why are they going to take it away from me?”
“Lindsay has dementia and is unable to read or write anymore. TV is vital stimulation, otherwise she sits staring into space. No way could she afford to pay for a licence on a state pension.”
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way so early in his remarks. Age UK has said that 850,000 people in the UK have dementia and that by 2025 the figure will be 1 million. Of course, many of them will be over 75. Is not the cruellest thing about this change the idea that people with dementia might be pursued by the BBC for payment for a TV licence?
My hon. Friend is right. We must think about the most vulnerable in our society whom this decision will affect. I received a steady stream of correspondence in letters, emails, phone calls and office visits in response to my letter—the figure is in the hundreds. While each person conveyed a heartbreaking account of how they would be affected by this Government U-turn, the collective responses are a powerful testament to how important the free TV licence is.
In Portsmouth South, 300 people got in touch, and nearly 90% of them supported the continuation of the free TV licence. Nearly 70% cited loneliness as their main concern if their licence were to be revoked.
My hon. Friend’s testimony is really powerful. Some 3,000 households in Blaenau Gwent could lose their free TV licences. Crucially, while TV is a source of entertainment, it is also often a form of companionship. Does he agree that the Government should reconsider their decision and restore this important benefit for older people?
I absolutely agree. I think that Age UK has said that four in 10 people say that TV is their only company. The free licence is therefore a social policy that the Government should retain.
The repercussions of the Government’s decision will not be felt in Whitehall; it is people in my constituency who will suffer—people in Portsea, Fratton and Southsea; Portsmouth people who I grew up living next door to. Actions speak louder than words. The Government have snatched a vital benefit from the demographic group who need it most: the most vulnerable in our society. They are owed it by the Government.
I have had a busy weekend, with two day-long galas in Lincoln—Boultham Park on Saturday and Lincoln Arboretum on Sunday. We had a petition about TV licences and were mobbed by people wanting to sign it. Everyone cross-party seems to agree, and in Lincoln I think 4,400 households will be affected. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is totally and utterly morally wrong to withdraw something so important, particularly when maintaining it was an election promise?
I absolutely agree, and I echo the comments from my hon. Friend Helen Jones about our D-day veterans. I am proud that my grandfather was a D-day veteran from Southsea. I got into politics because towards the end of his life he needed services that, because of austerity, were not there for him. This change will affect so many people in our society.
Offering a free TV licence only to those in receipt of pension credit is an ill thought through plan that leaves the door open to injustice. We know that about 1.3 million over-75s are eligible for pension credit but do not or cannot claim it. When I met Age UK in Parliament to discuss that, it said that many older people struggle to self-validate that they are in receipt of pension credit, however straightforward the process is, because they are living with some loss of cognitive function or chronic illness. Therefore, those who are most vulnerable are set to lose the most.
This policy change means that at least 650,000 of our poorest pensioners face a new annual bill that they cannot afford. What does the Minister have to say about that silent segment of vulnerable pensioners who have fallen through the cracks in our welfare system and now face further financial turmoil because of a poorly thought through Government policy?
In response to my countless letters and numerous written questions, including a joint letter I wrote with the Portsmouth Pensioners Association to the Prime Minister, I have consistently been told that this decision was made by the BBC. Since when did a broadcasting organisation begin administering welfare? Will Marks & Spencer or Tesco be responsible for delivering universal credit? Should we expect National Express to begin dishing out free bus passes for the over-75s? As a colleague said, the BBC is not the Department for Work and Pensions. Any attempt made by the Government to palm off responsibility is cowardly, unconvincing and spineless.
Make no mistake: this is a Government decision. It is up to us to be the voice of our constituents, and my constituents have spoken. The TV licence must remain free for the over-75s.
May I press the hon. Gentleman further on the BBC and the TV licence? What about over-75s who want to watch ITV or Channel 4 but, because of the licencing system, have to pay for the BBC? Is it not an anachronism that non-payment of the TV tax remains a criminal offence in this country? How can he possibly defend any of that?
My speech is based on what I hear from my constituents, and the people of Portsmouth have not raised that issue.
The arguments could not be more compelling. I urge the Minister to be bold and not to trot out the usual lines blaming the BBC. We have an opportunity to make a real difference to pensioners’ lives, and it must be taken. The universally free TV licence for over-75s must remain free.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson, not least because my hon. Friend Sir William Cash is speaking in the main Chamber, so this is a safe haven for the next 45 minutes, I estimate.
I am an unashamed fan of the BBC. We keep talking about the TV licence fee, but it is worth rehearsing the fact that the BBC provides a huge range of services in at least five or six distinct areas. What I would loosely call the social aspect of the BBC is hard to define, but people forget that it funds five classical music orchestras. We could debate whether that is a good use of licence fee payers’ money, but there it is.
I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Last week I hosted an event for the BBC at which it launched a new app called Own It, which is designed to help children to navigate social media. This week, I am hosting an event with the BBC for a scheme it is doing with the Arts and Humanities Research Council to fund doctoral students. Of course, we all celebrate the Proms. The BBC does a lot that no commercial organisation would do, much of which strays into the area of social good or the work of the Arts Council England. Frankly, I do not think it spends enough time telling people like us what it does in that field.
We refer to the TV licence fee, and we have heard a lot of citations from pensioners talking about how much they love television, but let us not forget radio. The BBC accounts for about 70% of radio listening. There are not just the national channels that we all listen to—Radio 4 and 5 Live for this demographic, I suspect, and also Radio 1, Radio 2, Radio 3 and 6 Music—but local radio, which is absolutely vital. In my constituency we have BBC Radio Oxford and, nationally, 39 local radio stations provide vital local coverage, in particular local news.
It is often BBC News that gets the BBC into trouble—there is always something for Brexiteers, remainers or Corbynistas to get their teeth into and object to. I thoroughly enjoyed the speech of hon. Friend John Howell—I had no idea about his life as top-flight media executive; he was a star of the BBC World Service. There is also the Parliament channel, local radio news and the BBC’s website. However often we disagree at times with how the BBC covers particular aspects of news, we can all agree that in an era of fake and very biased news being disseminated on social media—we see the effect that that has had on politics in the United States—we are lucky to have, broadly speaking, an unbiased and objective news service at the heart of the BBC, which is widely respected in the UK and abroad.
Then there is BBC drama and entertainment, including “Strictly Come Dancing”, “Poldark”, which we all watched last night, and “8 Days”, which I watched this morning with my Cavapoo at home. Quality drama pervades the whole of the drama output of British television. One reason why British television is so respected around the world is because the BBC sets a quality anchor—a quality level—that everyone else aspires to, which would not be there without it.
Then there is the BBC’s foray into the world of commerce. It generates its own revenue to keep the licence fee within reason and sells its programmes all over the world. BBC Studios, which makes programmes, is now in profit. The BBC has made a foray into commercial television with UKTV, to which I shall return.
The BBC does much work to make itself as accessible as possible. The iPlayer is probably the most user-friendly TV platform—I include Netflix in that. The BBC has also supported the roll-out of digital radio, and it has constantly innovated in relation to apps, as more and more people are obviously accessing content on smartphones. As my hon. Friend the Member for Henley said, BritBox, which it launched in the US with other commercial players, is now potentially being launched in the UK.
It is important to remember that there is a lot going on in the BBC. When people criticise it, they should ask themselves what we would do without it. I have to admit that it is a bit like the royal family—it is a bit of an anomaly. I am not sure whether we would invent it if we were starting from scratch, but it permeates our culture and I could not imagine a life without it, even though, as my hon. Friend said, it is not perfect and gets things wrong.
The issues facing the BBC include the licence fee itself, which we looked at when we undertook the charter review. We concluded that, rather like democracy, it is the least-worst option of funding the BBC. It maintains a level of independence from the Government and gives the BBC a secure income. By and large, it still works. It is not destined to last forever. It may be that the BBC eventually moves to a subscription model—we will have to wait and see. Let us not forget that the licence fee has evolved. There used to be a radio licence fee that people took out separately from the TV licence. There may be debates about whether there is a licence fee aspect of funding the BBC and a subscription aspect.
The BBC will continue to look at savings. It has taken about £1 billion in costs out of the organisation over the past 10 years, and it is right that it has done so. It has an existential challenge, in terms of competing with the commercial sector. It is a big elephant in the room, in so far as the UK media scene is concerned. Ten years ago, we could not move without every media organisation, including, funnily enough, The Guardian, complaining about its reach and scope. That has been dwarfed by the advent of Netflix, the resources that Sky will have following its takeover by Comcast, and Disney. The competition to fund content, and for eyeballs—not least given the changing ways that people are consuming content—will present real challenges to the BBC to remain relevant, particularly to a younger demographic. I do not envy it that.
The BBC faces challenges on which it can lead the way. It focuses far too much—this slightly contradicts what I just said—on saying, “How do I compete against ITV or Netflix?” and not enough on saying, “What does the privilege of a secure income from the licence fee allow me to do for the UK as a whole?”
The right hon. Gentleman is giving very compelling testimony about the value that the BBC adds to this country. I wholeheartedly endorse everything he has said. He is getting into the wider issue of the social value that the BBC adds. Elderly people frequently suffer from isolation and are unable to get out of the house. One of my constituents has said:
“I am disabled. I cannot go outside without my carer or my wheelchair. The television is my friend and companion.”
Does that not back up what the right hon. Gentleman has said? The BBC is about more than just entertainment; it adds social value over and above that.
It certainly is. If I knew about the services that the BBC provides in greater depth, I could probably rattle off five or six others, beyond simply the television, that it provides for the hon. Lady’s constituent.
Perhaps this sounds like navel-gazing—I am coming to my conclusion—but I think the BBC could take a massive lead in supporting much greater diversity, including with disabled people and black and minority ethnic people, not just in front of the camera but behind it. It really could invest in that. That is not to say that, over the past 30 or 40 years, it has not been at the centre of training legions of people who now work across the media.
The issue that concerns MPs at the moment, however, is the BBC’s struggle with having the free TV licence foisted upon it. As I have said already in the main Chamber, that policy was forced on the BBC by the Government, by the Treasury. There was no negotiation—the BBC was going to take the free TV licence, whether it liked it or not, as far as the Treasury was concerned. The only room for negotiation was what the BBC might be able to claw back in order to mitigate the financial impact.
The decision was wrong, and it was made because the then Government had to meet their manifesto commitment—ironically—of making £12 billion in welfare cuts. It was the wrong decision to impose on the BBC, and this Government compounded it. Having forced it on the BBC, they are disgracefully trying to have their cake and eat it, saying, “It’s the BBC’s decision but we disagree with it.” If they are going to force the policy on the BBC, they should support its decision. If we could roll it back, an honest Government would take the policy back from the BBC, engage with the public and decide whether free TV licences are affordable.
My personal view—this is where I will lose the support of Opposition MPs—is that the free TV licences were a gift given by a previous Government without thinking whether it was financially sustainable. Reform of free TV licences is a perfectly sensible position to look at, and it seems to me that the BBC, after careful analysis, has come up with a sensible reform policy. However, the question is whether that should be the BBC’s role, and the answer to that is no.
In the UK, 3.6 million older people live alone, of whom more than 2 million are aged 75 and over. A huge proportion of those individuals rely on their television to alleviate the loneliness that often comes when people live by themselves. Taking away free TV licences for the over-75s who are not in receipt of pension credit will detrimentally affect people who have worked hard all their lives. It will affect working-class areas, such as my constituency, the most—more than 3,000 households in Swansea East could lose their free TV licence.
The change will affect people such as my dad, who is in the excellent care of Anglesey ward in Morriston Hospital, no doubt watching television with his fellow patients. My dad worked hard all his life as a bus driver. He is now 89 years of age, with a small pension as well as a state pension to live on. He lives alone, since my mum passed away, and he relies a lot on his television to ease the common loneliness that can occur when older people live by themselves. He will now have to stretch his pension to pay for his TV licence—something that he had not planned for.
My dad is just one story, but one that will be common across the UK among those affected by the change. When the news broke that the free TV licence was ending, my neighbours Merv and Kitty, an elderly couple, immediately called my husband to ask him if it was true that they would now have to pay for a licence. Merv’s reaction was, “Stuff ’em. We won’t bother putting the TV on,” while Kitty’s was, “I can’t get out of the house and I really need my TV.” Immediately, therefore, a domestic started about whether they kept the TV or paid the licence.
Merv and Kitty worked all their lives saving for their pension—a small pension, but one that makes them ineligible for a free licence. Neither my Dad, nor Kitty and Merv are well off, and they are certainly not rich, but they are being treated as such. They now face an extra annual cost that is without doubt unfair and unnecessary. At their age, and with the contribution that they have made to this country over many years, a free TV licence is the least that we can give them.
Linking the over-75s’ free TV licence to pension credit is cruel. Pension credit is widely underclaimed by older people. In Swansea East alone, each year more than £6.5 million in pension credit does not reach the people who are entitled to it. So what about those who will not get their free TV licence because they are unaware that they are entitled to pension credit or, for whatever reason, have been unable to access it?
The decision to end free TV licences for the most vulnerable is shocking. For the sake of people out there such as my dad, Kitty and Merv, and all our elderly population, the least we can do to show them respect is to give them a free TV licence.
I particularly wanted to speak in this debate because I am a fan of the BBC and I value it as a national institution. However, I fear that it is being held back by its outdated funding mechanism. For the BBC’s own good, I want to outline why new avenues of funding need to be explored.
I fear that, by seeking to maintain its outdated funding mechanism, the BBC is handing its critics a big stick with which to beat it increasingly hard, especially following the most recent decision on free TV licences for the over-75s. A television licence designed for the tiny market for TV broadcasting in the 1920s is utterly at odds with the staggering array of live, online and recorded broadcasting market options now available, as well as with the ever-growing and emerging technologies in the sector as we enter the 2020s. The television licence is nearly an antique. It is a punitive tax that belongs in the past if the BBC is to survive and thrive as a public service and as a worldwide entertainment broadcaster into the future.
The BBC has an enviable international reputation for excellence, and one that we must celebrate in this House and not begrudge. In an opinion poll last year, the BBC was rated the most trusted news brand in America, with a staggering 90%, beating Fox, CBS, CNN, Bloomberg and others. I was not surprised to see, in line with that finding from overseas, that while many hundreds of my constituents signed the petition to abolish the TV licence, barely 100 signed the petition for an inquiry into alleged bias—a point that Helen Jones, who introduced the debate, touched on. To have been trained by or gained experienced in the BBC is a world-class addition to any broadcaster or producer’s CV, as I am sure my hon. Friend John Howell knows only too well.
All that is good about the BBC needs to be preserved and refreshed. We must support the BBC as an institution for the important value—in the widest sense of the word —that it adds to our national life and our international soft power, cultural standing and esteem. In that vein, as a friend of the BBC, I wish it would embrace the possibility of securing alternative funding to the anachronistic and criminalising television licence regime.
In the days when the BBC was the only broadcaster available in the UK, the licence would have seemed an obvious choice of funding, but the world has changed. We can receive a great number of television channels, not only from the UK but from overseas. Now, many people can record, pause and rewind live TV as part of their subscription, and a significant proportion subscribe to a number of pay-TV services in the UK. The figure was 15.1 million in the first quarter of 2018, while online subscriptions to Netflix, Amazon and Now TV combined totalled 15.4 million.
That state of affairs, as the Institute of Economic Affairs has pointed out, acts as a perverse incentive for television makers not to make televisions multifunctional. We do not need a television licence to own a phone that could be used to watch television programmes, but we do need a television licence to own a television that can be used as a phone. As we enter the 2020s, mobile multifunctional devices are ever more ubiquitous, and we cannot uninvent them, any more than we could uninvent the transistor radios that made the old radio licence an unsustainable nonsense, finally leading to the abolition of the radio-only licence in 1971. We need to look at all possible means of financing the BBC that do not involve any kind of archaic household licence to own an everyday consumer good.
Will the hon. Gentleman outline for us how he proposes that we should fund those channels and programmes that appeal only to minorities and would never attract a commercial sponsor? Also, how would he fund other aspects of the BBC, such as the Proms, its classical orchestras and so on?
I am about to get to that point. We need to do away with the inspectors and the prosecutions to enforce the licence. That might mean looking at the potential for paid on-demand digital broadcasting, or some form of subscription package, as we see with Sky, Netflix, Virgin, Amazon Prime and others. that might mean allowing programme sponsorship and advertising, as we see on most channels, such as ITV and, of course, Channel 4. As has been referred to, Channel 4 is a public service broadcaster. Unfortunately, the hon. Lady was wrong when she said that there is only one channel—Channel 4 has a number of channels, including E4 and others.
Channel 4 is a public sector broadcaster and receives subsidies, as my hon. Friend mentioned, but Channel 4 outbid the BBC for one of its own programmes, “The Great British Bake Off”. Channel 4 behaves like a commercial organisation, whereas the BBC does not—it grows organically and then, unfortunately, gets taken advantage of.
I recognise my hon. Friend’s point, but I suggest that a number of the programmes on Channel 4 add a huge amount of good to the country and beyond, as do many commercial stations. Many of the programmes that I enjoy on Channel 4 are factual and not just entertainment.
For programmes in the arts, crafts and culture sphere, perhaps there could be Arts Council-style grants, particularly for the purest of public good, public service broadcasts, if appropriate safeguards against interest group capture can be devised. They would not necessarily have to be made by the BBC, but could be funded by competitive tender through the BBC as a grant-awarding body. There could be more collaborative work with educational institutions, such as the Open University or others, to finance certain programme output.
It is certainly worth looking at the potential for purchased ticketing for BBC recordings. BBC shows are free to attend, but BBC tours are paid ticketed. There is clearly sufficient demand for those tours to make charges sustainable and to raise revenue. I wonder, too, given the huge waiting list and interest in shows such as “Strictly Come Dancing”, whether the market mechanism of paid ticketing might be an option to manage that demand. I have heard it said that at one point the waiting list for audience tickets to “Top Gear” was measured in decades. What an incentive it would be for the BBC to keep producing compelling programmes if it made audience ticket revenue.
At the moment, tickets to BBC shows are available to anyone with a UK postcode. There is clearly some kind of ticket pricing to be explored, perhaps even differential ticket pricing where a tour is included, or hospitality and so on. There is certainly a chance for some entrepreneurialism. I do not pretend for a moment that ticket sales would ever raise the sums raised by the TV licence, but they could be one of a number of streams that the BBC could pursue for certain programmes.
My hon. Friend is making some important points. BBC iPlayer is inaccessible outside the UK but it hosts the BBC’s back catalogue, which the licence fee payers have funded over decades. Surely a huge source of income for the BBC would be to allow people in the English-speaking world access, for a cost, to the BBC’s back catalogue through BBC iPlayer.
I entirely agree. It has been mentioned that the BBC seeks quite a significant income from international broadcast rights, and it could build on that substantially if it used the BBC iPlayer brand more effectively overseas.
The future of broadcasting, and of the BBC, is exciting. The BBC must not allow itself to stay in the past. I fear that the licence fee has become a comfort blanket that threatens to be a deadweight as other broadcasters move forward in the international market. As an admirer of the BBC, and as someone who values it as a vital institution for our country, I hope that it will enthusiastically embrace the opportunities for alternative funding streams that must be explored now that the television licence is all but antique.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I will speak briefly on behalf of the 570 people in my constituency who signed the petition calling on the Government to continue funding free TV licences for the over-75s. I mentioned in my intervention that at the weekend we were out as a party collecting signatures, and I imagine we got at least another couple of hundred more.
I am proud that we were in the top 50 constituencies to oppose this unjust and mean-spirited policy. It is totally unacceptable that over 4,400 households in Lincoln could lose their free TV licence under the plans. A recent survey found that 40% of older people say the television is their main source of company, and the Government seem determined to means-test loneliness and isolation. Nationally, it is estimated that over 1.6 million pensioners living alone will lose their free licence in a means-tested system. That is symptomatic of the Government’s whole approach. They should not offload responsibility for funding free TV licences on to the BBC. In fact, it seems that whatever question we ask in the Chamber, the responsibility is always pushed to somebody else.
It is particularly worrying that a further 1.3 million poorer over-75s who are eligible for pension credit but do not claim it are projected to lose their TV licence. That is one reason I will launch a campaign in Lincoln to end the pension credit scandal. More than 1 million pensioners in the UK do not get the pension credit they are entitled to. Those people generally have worked all their lives—they should get those benefits. My campaign will seek to raise awareness and offer support to those who are missing out on that crucial support.
I am aware that many hon. Members still want to speak, and we are all speaking along the same lines, so let me end by saying that it is typical of this Government to choose to cut taxes for corporations and the highest earners, while targeting their spending cuts on vulnerable older people who are struggling to make ends meet. That is morally wrong.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I congratulate all the petitioners who have made this debate happen. I declare an interest as the chair of the all-party parliamentary BBC group, which seeks to support the BBC but also to be a critical friend when required. I was going to speak about the real positives that the BBC delivers, but my right hon. Friend Mr Vaizey did just that. I am reminded of Lord Patten, who said:
“No-one would invent the BBC today. But thank God our predecessors did.”
In many ways the BBC is an anomaly, but it is much loved. As my right hon. Friend made clear, in an era when we have much to be concerned about—bias, influence, commercialisation and exposure to young audience members—it is fantastic that the BBC still stands for independence, impartiality, entertainment, excellence and education. We would lose that at our peril. Indeed, one need only speak to friends and colleagues who have moved abroad, and they all say that the one thing they miss greatly is watching the BBC.
I want to pick up on a point raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) and for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) about the BBC’s ability to sell more of its content abroad. BritBox, which is being piloted by the BBC and ITV, is a good example of where the BBC does innovate. It will allow audiences from outside the UK to view its content, at a charge. That is a good example of where the BBC is trying to make money from its own content.
I want to focus my remarks on the decision that the BBC has been required to take. I say “required” because I do not care what anyone says; there is no way that the BBC will be able to use 20% of its budget to carry on with the current position. The BBC did consult widely—I remember back in February inviting all MPs to come and hear about the proposals and what they would mean, and to get involved and get their constituents involved. The options were as follows: it could copy the current scheme, which means that 4.64 million over-75s would continue as is, but that would cost £745 million, rising to £1 billion by the end of 2030 because we are all living longer—that is to be celebrated, but it pushes up the cost. That would be equivalent to the funding for BBC 2, BBC 3, BBC 4, BBC News and all the BBC’s output for children, so it is clearly not sustainable.
Those who say, “Well, what about Gary Lineker’s salary?” should bear in mind that if the BBC axed the pay for all the talent earning above £150,000 it would save £20 million, so there would still be a long way to go to reach the £745 million. By the way, I am a big fan of Gary Lineker and think he gives value for money. [Interruption.] I have lost some hon. Members on that point. I am surprised to hear that from my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire, with Gary Lineker being a great Leicester player. Brexit has obviously ended that relationship.
The second option was removing the benefit altogether, which would mean that the poorest over-75s would have no option at all. I know that the Government would say that they funded the BBC to some regard, but to a degree I am surprised that the BBC has not chosen that option. The third option was a 50% discount, so everyone over the age of 75 gets the benefit, but only 50% of it. That would still cost £415 million, which is equivalent to the entire BBC 2 budget. The other option was raising the threshold to the age of 80, which would cost £481 million and be equivalent to BBC 2’s budget or BBC 4.
Of all the options, the one that we have landed on was the one that found most favour. I will not say that it was liked, because I do not think that anyone liked it, but linking the benefit to pension credit means that 900,000 over-75s will still benefit. It will cost £209 million, which the BBC will still have to bear, and that is greater than the funding it was given to take it on. That amount is still the same as the cost of Radio 1, Radio 2, Radio 3, Radio 4 and Radio 5. That is where the BBC has found itself.
I believe in telling it as it is. The BBC has agreed to this, but I do not think it was given much option—it was either agree to this or to something else. The BBC was not funded for it. Probably due to a copy and paste mechanism, our last manifesto said that we would guarantee free TV licences for the over-75s for the term of this Parliament. I am not confident that that means 2022.
I certainly do not know something that the hon. Lady does not know.
We made a manifesto commitment that now puts us in a difficult position, if the BBC is going to take away the licence fee for those outside the means test from 2020 to 2022. It leads to an argument for the Government Benches that the Government would need to carry on funding it, at least for that two-year period.
I take issue with the petitions—like my right hon. Friend Mr Vaizey, I will now lose part of the room, or perhaps all of it. Although I understand the cost implication for those who cannot afford the licence fee—I absolutely recognise that pension credit is at its lowest level and that those just outside the pension credit boundary will struggle to meet this cost—I have a fundamental problem, which I am surprised that Opposition Members do not share. If a multi-millionaire happens to be over the age of 75, they receive a free universal benefit that is effectively being subsidised by someone in their early 20s who is renting and cannot afford to buy a property of their own.
I believe that there is a cost to everything and there are choices. The Government spend £800 billion each year on our public services. If we are spending money on people who can afford to pay, ultimately that means either that somebody else has got to pay for it or that somebody else will not receive the same benefit.
The hon. Gentleman has made some interesting points. Earlier in the debate reference was made to a public good. A public good is defined as a service, such as healthcare or education, that we feel is so important to us as a society that we collectively provide it. The BBC is a public good; it has a value for our democracy, for our community cohesion and for society generally. Therefore, we should pay for it collectively and not leave people who are over 75, and who cannot afford to pay for it themselves because they have no means, to pay for it. We should provide it collectively, as a public good.
The hon. Gentleman, who I know worked for the BBC, makes a good point. I agree that the BBC is a public good, but there are other public goods that one can think of where we require people to pay or we means-test them.
I have a fundamental issue with it. I am sorry to use these words, but I think it was an election bribe. Once something is given for free, it is difficult to ask people to start paying for it. I recognise that challenge. I ask all right hon. and hon. Members to consider this: if this is always going to be a cost, and we have to make decisions, then should the welfare state be providing something for people who can readily afford it, so that we are unable to spend more on those who really are at the borderline? I say that not to get electoral gain; I represent a constituency that has the second highest proportion of over-75s in the country, so I commit electoral suicide. It is important that we address this; if we do not, we will find that other decisions will be made or will not be reviewed. I am particularly worried about inter-generational fairness; people are missing out because we preserve benefits for people on the basis of age rather than means.
My last point is to the Minister. She is an excellent Minister and she has inherited this package, if I can call it that, from predecessors in the Treasury. I believe that we need to look at this again. It is a big challenge. We made a commitment in our manifesto that we should stick by it. As for the future—and that gives us time to think about the future—I would like us to address whether it is affordable to give people a benefit that they would be able to pay for themselves.
I too will speak in support of the petition for the restoration of TV licences for the over-75s. Like many other hon. Members, I was deeply concerned by the announcement that the TV licence concessions for the over-75s would now be linked to pension credit. As many hon. Members have said, this is a problem of the Government’s own making. Ministers cannot hide behind the BBC, because it was their decision to outsource responsibility for TV licences, despite the manifesto pledge to maintain the benefit. As my hon. Friend Helen Jones said, they have been devolving the blame.
Some 3,770 households in Newport East are set to lose their licences under the changes, and across the wider Gwent region that rises to 23,450 households, with a total annual cost across all households of over £567,000. As other hon. Members have said, TV licences are an important benefit for older people, who suffer disproportionately from isolation and loneliness. As the excellent Age Cymru has said, for millions of over-75s the TV is not just the box in the corner; it is their constant companion, their window on the world and their main form of company.
TV is also an essential source of information for people who are not online, and it plays a crucial role in their ability to be an active citizen in our democracy. Research from Age Cymru shows that only 29% of over-75s in Wales use the internet. The shift to information being online has already made it more difficult for older people to keep informed and to access key services. Removing the entitlement to a free TV licence would add substantially to these difficulties.
Linking the concession to pension credit is also hugely problematic. Estimates by the Department for Work and Pensions suggest that two in every five people eligible for pension credit are not claiming the benefit. In Newport East alone that is almost £5 million of unclaimed pension credit that is not reaching the people who need it each year. Until the Government act to ensure that everyone who is entitled to pension credit receives it, a huge number of older people risk losing out on two benefits at once if the TV licence proposals go ahead. That is the problem with it not being universal.
As Age Cymru has highlighted, there are many reasons why older people do not claim pension credit: they may not know the benefit exists; they may feel they are not entitled to any help; they may be put off by the process of claiming; they may struggle on alone, assuming that others are worse off than them; or they be living with dementia, as other hon. Members have mentioned. In practical terms, there are serious questions to ask about how the BBC will ensure that people with dementia will be able to pay their licence fee and, if they do not, how non-payment will be enforced. It does not bear thinking about. Age Cymru has said that there may be 850,000 people affected by that.
I want to finish by citing an example from my constituency. In the week that the licence fee proposals were outlined, candidates in the Conservative leadership election began to outline their plans to cut taxes for the wealthiest in society. Days later I was contacted by the neighbour of an 86-year-old armed forces veteran in Newport who is set to lose his TV licence under the new proposal. I know that Defence Ministers are concerned about that. The contrast underlines and amplifies the fact that the Conservative party has a serious question to answer about where its priorities lie and the kind of country it wants us to live in. I echo the calls from campaigners and charities such as Age Cymru for the UK Government to take back the funding and administration fee for the free TV licence scheme and let the BBC focus on its job of being a brilliant national broadcaster. TV licences are a social benefit that should not have been outsourced.
It is a pleasure to take part in the debate under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. Like some of my Conservative colleagues, I am, broadly speaking, a supporter of the BBC, but I readily admit that that is weakening somewhat. My right hon. Friend Mr Vaizey and my hon. Friend John Howell outlined some of the great benefits of the BBC, ranging from support for the Proms and orchestras to, of course, the BBC World Service, where my hon. Friend was an eminent producer, or perhaps director. I would happily pay the licence fee for Radio 4, local radio and “Test Match Special”, to name just three—but, as has been pointed out, we can afford it. I rather wish that Radio 4 would go silent at 6.30 pm, when it broadcasts inane comedies, but that is just a personal opinion.
On the question of celebrity and sports star pay, I am sorry that Gary Lineker and the £1.75 million paid to him keep coming up in the debate, but the BBC, which is a public sector organisation, needs to reflect that that amount of money is out of bounds to most people. Those I represent would not earn that in their lifetime, working over 40 to 50 years. Would I still watch “Match of the Day” if it was presented by some unknown? Yes, because I do not watch it to hear the gossip; I watch it to see the action.
As for the decision about the over-75s, this day was certain to come. As we heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage, the policy was foisted on the BBC by the Treasury. It was inevitable that it would opt out at the first possible opportunity and cause embarrassment to the Administration in office at the time. So it has, and it is a great opportunity for Opposition Members to have a go at the Government, when they did little on their own in this respect.
Helen Jones moved on from arguments about the licence fee to discuss the leadership of the Conservative party and reflect on some of the policies put forward by my right hon. Friends the Members for South West Surrey (Mr Hunt), and for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson). She talked about tax cuts and said that we in this Chamber do not need them. Perhaps so, but we do not need free TV licences either. The sustainability of such universal benefits must be looked at, whether they are TV licences, bus passes or whatever. They cannot go on draining the taxpayer when so many essential services are needed. Karen Lee, who is no longer in her place, referred to a survey. If people on the streets of Cleethorpes were asked whether they would rather pay for something or have it for free, just as in Lincoln it would be no surprise if they said, “We would rather have it for nothing.” The reality is of course different.
With regard to news bias, there is no doubt that the BBC is, in effect, The Guardian of the airwaves, rather than the Daily Express. It is perhaps not so much that there is bias; of course the BBC will say that it gets as many complaints from one side as the other, so it must therefore be getting things right. However, there is a rather superior intonation in some of the questions from interviewers, as if to say, “Do you really think that people would vote for Brexit?” That is an insult to the 70% of my electorate who voted for Brexit—and very wise they are too.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the potential for BBC bias is not only in how it reports what it reports, but in the fact that 70% of the public rely on it for much of their news, and the BBC has the power to decide what is or is not reported in the news?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. There is no doubt that many important events in this country and around the world go unreported, when items that in the great scheme of things are perhaps more trivial find their way on to the airwaves, and perhaps that is a reflection of the organisation itself.
I am still, broadly speaking, a supporter of the BBC. I should like it to continue in some shape or form, if that is realistic in this multi-channel age when sports rights, for example, cost the earth. Lesser sports, shall we say, are now coming on to the BBC, and I have no problem with that. It is only right that they should get an airing. However, after the success of the Lionesses in the recent women’s World cup, there is no doubt that Sky, BT or someone else will come sniffing around by the time of the next women’s World cup, and it will be lost to the great majority. We saw only yesterday, with the cricket world cup, how free-to-air brings the country together on great sporting occasions.
I suspect that if I am home by 10 o’clock tonight I shall watch the 10 o’clock news on the BBC rather than any of the other offerings, but I think that the BBC needs to reflect. I am content with the present system continuing for at least the foreseeable future. I am not entirely convinced that the majority of my constituents would agree. That should cause the BBC and the Minister to reflect on the present structure and whether it can continue.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson, and to take part in the debate opened by my hon. Friend Helen Jones, who gave an outstanding introduction, as usual. She talked about the “not me, guv” Government, and she is right, because their consistent modus operandi with public services is to slash a public authority’s funding and blame it when it is unable to deliver the service. Alternatively, when the public authority has to put up its prices to compensate for the lack of money from central Government, they will attack it politically for doing so. We have seen that happen with failures of local government services, such as the fire service and the police. The epidemic horror of knife crime is apparently nothing to do with the 20,000 fewer police officers, or the cuts to children’s services. Apparently it is all the fault of the Mayor of London. A similar thing can be seen in the debate about the BBC licence fee. The BBC was presented with huge cuts to its budget and was forced to take the blame when it had to charge the licence fee to over-75s. It is part of a consistent practice by the Government that needs to be exposed and resisted.
[Dame Cheryl Gillan in the Chair]
Huw Merriman talked about some of the services that would be affected were the BBC to have to take on the whole amount. In total that could be £700 million a year. That would be the cost of BBC 2, BBC 4, BBC News, BBC Scotland and BBC Radio 5 Live and, crucially, local radio stations. Given the crisis in local newspapers, the BBC is in some areas often the only real provider of the quality local news that binds communities together. It can do that because of the licence fee.
There is what is known as an ecosystem in broadcaster funding. Each broadcaster in the UK is funded differently. ITV is funded largely through advertising, with some production work. Sky has a subscription and some production work and advertising. It all knits together particularly well. I must say that, if we move away from the current model to one where the BBC or parts of it had to either use subscription or enter into advertising, I am pretty sure not only that existing channels would be unhappy but that it would damage their operations. That is not to mention the question how we take on the influence of the global giants based on the west coast of the United States.
I, too, have a problem with the size of some of the salaries paid to BBC presenters. I have a particular problem with the use of the word “talent” to describe on-air performers and presenters, whether on radio or TV, because it suggests that the whole attraction of a particular broadcast is based on the individual who presents it. Make-up artists, production designers and junior producers are all talented, and the quality of the programming is vested in all of them and not simply in the person who is in front of the microphone or the camera.
Why on earth did the BBC accept this cut to its budget and the enforced taking on of the licence for over-75s? The simple truth, as other hon. Members have already mentioned, is that it was forced to do so. If we speak to senior BBC management, we hear that they were left in no doubt that this was being forced on them. My hon. Friend Paul Farrelly, who was on the Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport with me, called it a “drive-by shooting”. A Treasury Minister—I think this was while George Osborne was Chancellor—told the BBC, “This is the way it’s going to be, so make the best of it.” When BBC management said that they were quite happy with the solution, that was not the case—but what else could they say when they had a gun to their head?
There is also another, more sinister reason. I was on the DCMS Committee when Rona Fairhead, the then chair of the BBC Trust, attended a pre-appointment scrutiny session for the position of chair of the new BBC board. Before she appeared before us, we were informed that after her meeting at Downing Street with the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, she had a private meeting with him without any civil servants present. That was put to her, and she admitted that it was the case. As it happened, the Committee declined to confirm her appointment, but the situation does give rise to the question why the BBC governors at the time did not resist the idea of the over-75s licence fee being deposited on them. Coincidentally, Rona Fairhead was shortly afterwards appointed to the House of Lords and made a member of the Government. I am not suggesting that those two incidents are linked—
My hon. Friend suggests that I should be. It does not give off a particularly pleasant smell to have a part of the Government giving out favours to get a policy through. It stinks, and it ought not to be allowed. Even the perception that a deal was done—because that is one of the possible perceptions—ought not to be allowed.
The BBC licence fee, as we have heard, represents so much more than simply a broadcasting service for older people in particular. I simply ask: if we do not provide the service and social isolation continues, what is the cost then of having to look after more people with more advanced dementia? What is the cost of having to provide social services elsewhere for older people whose quality of life is deteriorating? There are hidden costs involved, and we find once again that the BBC licence fee gives huge value for money in a much broader context than that of simply listening to the radio or watching television.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Cheryl. As has already been mentioned, I need to declare an interest; unlike John Howell, I rejected the advice of my father, who said I had a great face for radio, and decided to become a BBC TV reporter. I congratulate my hon. Friend Helen Jones on securing this crucial debate.
What could be more crucial in this period of political instability than the question of BBC bias, which is what I will address in my speech? I think hon. Members will be pleased to hear that I will not mention “Panorama”. I do not need to. This is a target-rich environment. When it comes to BBC bias, or impartiality and the BBC, we often find, as in this debate, that there are a lot of contradictory claims and counter-claims. That is partly because the BBC produces a vast amount of content, featuring a range of people and opinions, meaning that everyone will at some point see something to complain about.
Unfortunately, at times that has led representatives and defenders of the BBC to dismiss all criticism of its reporting. “If we are attacked from both sides,” the argument goes, “then we must be doing something right.” However, when faced with conflicting claims, we cannot just dismiss them all and assume that everything is fine; we must assess which are accurate—or which are more accurate.
When it comes to climate change, there is a weight of evidence among the scientific community, and then there are the ideas put about by right-wing think tanks, newspapers and politicians. Similarly, when it comes to debates about the BBC, there are the allegations of bias advanced by many of those same right-wing interests, and then there are the findings of independent academic research. What does the social scientific evidence tell us about BBC impartiality? One consistent finding is that the BBC allows the press and senior politicians to set the agenda for its reporting. In the BBC’s Bridcut report of 2007, it acknowledged that impartiality should mean representing a range of views in society, not just the perceived political centre ground or the balance of opinion in Westminster.
However, research by Cardiff University found that, five years later, BBC News was still dominated by elite sources with—and this is key—an over-representation of Conservative and Eurosceptic views. During the EU referendum, that “impartiality as balance” paradigm, which seems always to lean to the right, was scrupulously applied to the two sides of the referendum campaign, but with the right dominating both. Research by Loughborough University found that Conservative and UK Independence party representatives accounted for 74% of all party political appearances on television news. Cardiff University found an even higher level of prominence, with Conservatives and UKIP together accounting for almost 80% of politicians.
The striking domination of our political debate by the right is exacerbated by the influence of right-wing newspapers. One of the key functions of the BBC should be to act as a bulwark against misinformation and the abuses of private power, but how can it perform that function if its news agenda is set by an often unscrupulous, partisan press, owned by a handful of billionaires, which has spent decades misinforming people on every important issue of the day? Again, we can look at the research: Cardiff University found that more than half of BBC News policy stories during the 2015 general election originated with the press, with The Daily Telegraph and The Times leading the pack, and the right, once again, dominating overall.
Another crucial issue on which this has had an impact, alongside reporting on immigration and the EU, is austerity. There is now a fairly substantive body of work examining the reporting of the 2008 financial crisis, including, for example, Mike Berry’s recent book. Berry shows that the economic debate, at that crucial time for our country, was skewed toward the right, and that even mainstream economic opinion was marginalised in favour of the disinformation emanating from the Conservative party and its allies in the press.
I could go on, but the overall picture is clear: not only is BBC News overwhelmingly orientated towards the political and economic establishment but, in so far as it exhibits any political bias, it tends to be towards the right. The story behind that pattern of reporting is detailed in Tom Mills’s 2016 book on the BBC. The organisation has always been a quasi-state broadcaster, orientated toward officialdom and particularly vulnerable to pressure from the Government of the day, as the last charter renewal process showed.
The situation got much worse from the 1980s onwards, when the BBC became increasingly marketised and politicised. Independent reporting was curtailed as editorial and managerial authority was consolidated, funding was cut and services and programme making were contracted out. In short, the BBC’s public service ethos, which was always far too elitist anyway, was steadily eroded while the BBC was slowly privatised. None of that opened it up to a wider range of voices. The privately educated and Oxbridge graduates still dominate—just as they do the press, as a recent Sutton Trust report shows—but the BBC became an elitist organisation more in step with neoliberal Britain.
I have no doubt that the Brexiteers want a BBC that is even more right wing, even more vulnerable to Government pressure and even less economically literate in its reporting—or, alternatively, no BBC at all. Meanwhile, some on the left are so disillusioned with the BBC that they have given up on it altogether. That is a mistake. There are serious problems with the BBC that cannot be ignored, but they can be resolved by making it genuinely independent of Governments—of the left and the right—and accountable not to a narrow elite but to its own staff and to the communities it should represent. The left has always been a friend to the BBC, and should remain so, but securing a public and democratic media system with the BBC at its heart will require radical change.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl, in this important debate for pensioners across the country. I thank my hon. Friend Helen Jones for securing the debate and the 170,000 people who signed the online petition calling on the Government to protect free TV licences for those aged 75 and over. They join the 600,000 people who signed Age UK’s petition calling for the Government to act on this issue.
There is a real sense of public anger at the injustice of the decision to end free TV licences for all those aged 75 and over, with many saying that they will not pay. I have felt that public anger in my constituency. Many of my constituents cannot understand why the Government refuse to stand up for pensioners. I have spoken to constituents who will be directly affected by the Government’s inaction, coming from the more than 3,000 local households set to lose a free TV licence.
The Government have betrayed my constituents, along with the pensioners of this country. There was a clear promise in the 2017 Conservative party manifesto that free TV licences would be protected until the end of this Parliament, yet the Government chose to outsource the responsibility and the financial burden of free TV licences to the BBC. They have successfully shifted the blame on to the BBC for the decision to end free TV licences for all those aged 75 and over. However, the Government must take responsibility. They made a cynical promise to pensioners that they had no intention of keeping. I have repeatedly spoken out in Parliament to highlight the fact that the Government’s promise to our pensioners now lies in tatters. When the Labour party held an Opposition day debate on this issue, the Government Benches were all but empty. The Government did not dare vote against Labour’s motion, because they know that they have betrayed the trust of pensioners across the country.
When I confronted the Prime Minister on the issue at Prime Minister’s questions, her answer could not have been weaker. She told the BBC to “think again”, but it is the Prime Minister, whose days are numbered, who must think again. She was the architect of the 2017 Conservative manifesto, which contained a clear promise to protect free TV licences for those aged 75 and over. In one of her last acts as Prime Minister, she should live up to the pledge she gave when she first entered Downing Street to tackle the burning injustices in our society. She should protect our pensioners by ensuring that free TV licences for all those aged 75 and over are maintained.
As things stand, from June 2020 free TV licences will be restricted to those aged 75 and over who claim pension credit. The BBC claims that this will ensure that the poorest pensioners are protected, but its own analysis suggests that just 11% of the poorest households would keep their free TV licence if it was linked to pension credit, and that the poorest 10th of over-75s would have to spend more than 2% of their total income on the TV licence.
There are also clearly issues with the take-up of pension credit. As has been mentioned, the DWP’s latest estimates highlight the fact that two out of five people aged 75 and over who should be claiming pension credit have not done so. Independent Age found more than £7 million of pension credit going unclaimed in my constituency of Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill alone. If there is £7 million in my constituency, how much more is out there? However, the Government appear to be doing little to encourage greater take-up of pension credit among those aged 75 and over.
Let us be clear that the decision to restrict free TV licences will increase both poverty and, more importantly, loneliness among our pensioners. One in four over-75s say that the TV is their main source of company, after having brought up their family and then being left alone. I know that. I lost my mother last year, and I know that my dad depends so much on the TV nowadays.
This decision will do nothing to stop the continuing rise of pensioner poverty across the UK. We are often told by the Government that they are on the side of pensioners, yet they still refuse to act to protect pensioners’ interests. It is time for the Government to stop blaming the BBC and start taking responsibility. It is time for them to keep their promise and protect the TV licence for the over-75s.
David Plowright was one of the great leaders of commercial television. He was the chief executive of Granada Television for many years, where great documentaries and “World in Action” were produced, as well as groundbreaking drama and excellent regional news, and he went on to become the deputy chair of Channel 4. His criteria for the BBC—one of his main competitors—was that it was there to keep the commercial side of television honest. He wanted to support it, and he wanted it to be as good as it possibly could be. It is interesting that, all around this debate, people have to different degrees supported the BBC. Nobody would create it as it is today if we were starting afresh, but there is enormous support, respect and affection for it.
On bias and other aspects of the BBC, my worry is that there is a certain decadence within the organisation, by which I mean a decaying of standards in all sorts of areas of reporting, which, if it continues, might mean that if this debate took place in five or 10 years, there would not be as much support for what is in effect the state broadcaster, supported by a flat-rate tax. I agree partially with my hon. Friend Clive Lewis that there is one obvious reason for that, although there may well be others: the people who run, report and work for the BBC are primarily drawn from London and Oxbridge, and they have a common view of the world that leads to certain conclusions.
Where I probably disagree with my hon. Friend is my guess that that gives them an almost coherent, homogenous view of the EU and what our relationship with the EU should be. Although this is more difficult to substantiate, I nevertheless think that it also means that, privately, they think they are right and that their view of the world is correct, and that the people who I represent—who are, by and large, not as well educated and do not have the same level of income or educational achievement—are probably wrong.
That is never stated publicly, and I have many friends who are BBC executives and reporters and who do their best. I would never question the integrity of individual BBC reporters. They are doing their best, but it is a fact that there will not be many people working in the BBC who are from the poorest parts of the United Kingdom and would give a different view on the matter. I think that is one reason why we see such high salaries. To someone in the organisation from the background that I have described, having a salary of nearly £2 million might not seem as obscene as it does to most of the people I represent. I do not believe that Gary Lineker was a great footballer; I do not believe that he is—whatever it is—20 or 15 times better at his job than Gabby Logan.
The point that I want to make is not so much about Gary Lineker; it is just the fact that the BBC operates in a commercial environment. If it does not pay its talent a commercial wage—many of them actually earn less than the commercial wage—it will lose that talent to other organisations, and then people will switch off the BBC and it will lose viewers.
That is a reasonable point as far as it goes. The BBC has not only paid very high salaries in a discriminatory way over the last five years; when it was found to be discriminating, it increased those salaries. It is the case that there are places within the BBC that have to compete commercially, but the fact that it has increased the number of people presenting sports programmes surely shows that there is not a shortage. It could get very high-quality people at a lower rate. Let us say that Gary Lineker goes to BT or Sky; I think that the people at the BBC who are earning a lot less are as good. I understand the argument advanced by Huw Merriman, but I do not think that it stands up in that case or many others.
I think that John Humphrys is one of the best interviewers there has been on the BBC. He has dropped his salary, but I do not think that he was ever worth more than £600,000 or that the private sector was going to pay that amount of money for him. I have no idea what Andrew Neil gets paid at the moment, but it is a great pity that another great interviewer is leaving the BBC. I do not know whether that is down to commercial pressure or just because he is a bit cheeky and teases the BBC management, but it is a great pity. He gives politicians all round the clock a pretty tough and torrid time when he interviews them, and that is a great thing for democracy. But I think that, from that narrow base, we do get a distorted view.
Incidentally, I take the point made by the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle that £20 million would not pay the licence fees for the over-75s. I accept that; it is just simple arithmetic. But—it is a big but—£20 million is still quite a lot of money, and one of the aspects of the BBC that I appreciate is the quality of regional radio, which is massively underfunded. In regional radio, £20 million would go a long way. Compared with when I started out in politics, which was a long time ago, what is put out by BBC Radio Manchester now—its political coverage and the rest of its coverage—on less resources is not as comprehensive. The quality of the people doing it is excellent, but there simply are not as many of them and there is not as much. That is because of underfunding.
I want to give three or four examples, if I may, of where I think this cohort of south-eastern, Oxbridge-educated people get it wrong. I will say, and the point has already been made, that any organisation with human beings in it is going to make mistakes. The mistakes themselves are mistakes, but they do indicate a larger problem with the BBC.
The BBC procured and presented on BBC Three, when it was a channel, a series of programmes called “People Like Us”. That was based in the ward that I used to represent as a councillor and that is still in the constituency I represent. Frankly, it was poverty porn. It gave the most distorted view of one of the poorest wards in the country. Depending on how we count these things—it is not a competition that any ward or constituency wants to win—Harpurhey is the poorest or the third poorest ward in the country. Cameras went along and the people making the programme pretended—it was a pretence—that they were following how people in Harpurhey lived. They were not; they were distorting it. They paid girls to fight each other. They opened a pub and created a most peculiar party of transvestites. I have nothing against transvestites, but that kind of situation had never happened in that particular public house, which was being closed for a couple of years. They got a pretend landlord in to talk about how he was very happy for his tenants to take drugs. It was clearly a put-up job. And some of the people who said outrageous things were taken on holiday by the company doing this. It was a shocking and terrible thing, and I do not believe that if people from that kind of background had been part of the BBC, that programme would ever have been made. Fortunately, there was not a second series. The head of BBC Three was good enough to see me and Councillor Karney, who represented the ward. I do not know whether it was down to our lobbying, but there was not a second series.
I want to talk about two other matters. One is bias on the EU. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich South made a speech that I half completely agreed with and half completely disagreed with. There is quite a lot of evidence, in terms of the numbers of people interviewed about the European Union, that there are more pro-EU people. In the run-up to the referendum, virtually every business person who was interviewed on the “Today” programme was asked how Brexit was going to damage their business. In fact, it became a standard form of question or statement that “in spite of Brexit”, this benefit or that increase in jobs had happened.
A number of independent research groups have shown the bias in the run-up to the European elections. They have counted the number of people who were pro-EU compared with the number who were anti-EU, and the pros win by about three to one. In fact, one of the senior political journalists said, “We have no need to be balanced in this matter,” which I think is at odds with the BBC’s constitution.
The difference, during the run-up to the referendum campaign, was striking. The BBC did what it does in general elections: it was perfectly well balanced. That was in contrast with what happened afterwards and what happened before the period of the referendum. I think that that is partly because the people who run the BBC in London are essentially all pro-EU and think that there is something peculiar about people who are not.
My background is as a scientist. I believe in the scientific method and I practised for 10 years, running an analytical laboratory, so I am not, in the way some people mean it, a climate sceptic. However, some of the science from the likes of the University of East Anglia and in the leaked emails is a bit dodgy—very dodgy in that case. Some of the policies proposed to deal with climate change are expensive and one needs to be sceptical about the cost of those policies.
Not only is the cohort running the BBC from Oxbridge, but it is happier speaking about the subjunctive than the second law of thermodynamics. They have clear views on what the perception of science and climate change is. I will give an example, which I think is quite extraordinary. I appeared on a programme with Lord Lilley—with whom I disagree with about almost everything—about the Met Office, with Quentin Letts conducting the interview. Lord Lilley has a scientific background. He has a degree from Cambridge in physics. We agreed that climate change is happening and the planet is warming up a bit, but that the response is probably overblown. I said that the Met Office was very good at short-term forecasting, but hopeless at medium and long-term forecasts.
It is now impossible to get a recording of that programme, because it is banned, like the Catholic Church in the 16th century. We are on a banned list, because we agreed that the discussion was unbalanced. On the EU, there is no balance, but on a relatively trivial matter, the scientifically illiterate people at the BBC have decided to ban us. There will be real problems in the future if the BBC does not sort these things out.
I have spoken slightly longer than I intended. Finally, I will speak about the issue of free licences. It is not really worth a great deal of further thought. It is quite obvious that the Government—not the BBC—should be responsible for a benefit such as free television licences for the over-75s. The licence fee, however, is worth further consideration—not next week, but in the near future. I find it strange that on my side of the House there is enthusiasm and support for—I could name many such issues, but I will not—flat-rate taxes, which are regressive. If there is a public good and a public benefit from television, which I think there is, it should be funded by progressive taxation coming out of income tax.
The argument against that often put by BBC executives is that it damages the independence of the BBC. My hon. Friend Christian Matheson knocked that argument on the head on a very specific case. The people running the BBC are part of the informal ruling class in London, and they scratch each other’s backs, so there is not complete independence there. Further, Governments have always set the level of the licence fee, so every five years the Government have a say. I do not see why we should not have progressive rather than regressive taxation for what is undoubtedly a public good.
The BBC has had a lot of support, but it has to look at how it funds its regional organisations and how it stops being a cosmopolitan elite, with all the narrow views that that implies.
I remind colleagues that there is a possibility of votes in the main Chamber during our proceedings, in which case I will suspend and we will have to return. This will be the last speech from hon. Members on the Back Benches, after which we will move on to the Front-Bench spokespeople.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Graham Stringer, who spoke about science, which is an area in which the BBC has improved in recent years. It gives me even greater joy to participate in a debate started by my hon. Friend Helen Jones, who always speaks with such style and panache, which we can only envy, whatever the subject.
Given that it is a summers’ evening and we have hardly mentioned the great triumph in the cricket world cup yesterday, which was broadcast by “Test Match Special”, I want to find reasons to be cheerful, cherish the BBC and suggest some interventions to help not only the BBC but other public service broadcasters. I will refer to some ideas mentioned by other hon. Members.
Martin Vickers—by far the best town on the east coast, so I hear—mentioned the loss of sports broadcasting rights for the BBC. We have just had a tremendous weekend for sport. The cricket world cup was watched by a peak audience of 7.9 million on Channel 4 and Sky, but it was beaten by Wimbledon, which was broadcast on the BBC to a peak audience of 9.6 million. That happened not by accident, but because the Wimbledon tennis finals are part of the listed events that must be offered to free-to-air television.
In future, we should not have to rely on the public relations of Comcast or Sky to ensure that we can see those events. The women’s world cup attracted more than 11 million viewers. It is no good showing one event every 15 years; the story of a tournament has to be told over a number of months, possibly years. There is a growing call for events such as the women’s world cup, and the men’s and women’s T20 and 50-overs cricket world cups—particularly games involving England, the other home nations and the final—to be broadcast on free-to-air TV. The deputy leader of the Labour party made an interesting but underreported speech on this subject the other day. We should make that intervention.
Ofcom has been looking at the prominence of BBC channels and other public service broadcasting channels. It has made some rather good recommendations, including for public service channels to be prominent not only on traditional TVs, but on set-top boxes, streaming services and smart TV. I hope the Government will find time to put those recommendations into legislation quickly, so that the licence fee payer always finds it easy to see the BBC and other public service broadcaster channels.
Ofcom has said it is minded to allow the BBC to keep programmes on the iPlayer for up to a year. That would be a good thing. It is reflected among some of the BBC’s commercial competitors. Equally, I am hopeful that Ofcom will agree to the proposals for BritBox. Such services exist in the United States. It would entail the BBC and ITV, and hopefully other public service broadcasters, after a period, providing streaming packages for their big-hit programmes, providing an additional revenue stream. A similar project, Project Kangaroo, was rejected by Ofcom 10 years ago. I hope that Ofcom will recognise that the BBC is now operating in a completely different market. Netflix spends £8 billion a year on programming. There is also Amazon and Facebook to compete with. The BBC must be allowed to compete with those global media giants.
I have one or two other points to make. We heard about people being jailed for not paying the licence fee. The number of people who have gone to prison has gone down dramatically, from 50 in 2012 to 17 in 2017. They were sent to jail not by the TV licensing authority but by magistrates, often for multiple debts in addition to non-payment of the licence fee. It is wise to keep the issue in context.
John Howell made it clear that he does not like programmes being switched for the tennis, but when it comes to advertising he is rather more pro. As my hon. Friend Christian Matheson said, allowing widespread advertising on the BBC would totally destabilise the traditional market. ITV and Channel 4 would lobby very hard against it, because it would destroy a large part of their income stream.
The question of bias was raised. Some hon. Members did not deal with the “Panorama” programme, but I am quite happy to mention it, and indeed the whole series. Recent and forthcoming “Panorama” episodes include one on relationships education, one on abortion in the United States, one on exiting the EU and on what a no-deal Brexit might mean, and one dealing with antisemitism in the Labour party. They are all perfectly legitimate programmes.
There is a gentleman who I think goes by the name of Seumas Milne, who I think works in the Leader of the Opposition’s office, and who I think might fit the public school-educated, south-eastern, Oxbridge profile that some of my hon. Friends are very agitated about. No doubt in all those institutions, as he was growing up, he was advised using a cricket analogy: play the ball, not the man. That is very sensible advice—attacking the credibility of a very distinguished journalist was not my party’s finest moment. I think of another Milne: Alasdair Milne, whose record Seumas should perhaps look back on. He was a man who defended the BBC against the Government, and probably paid for it with his job. That is a far better example to follow.
We have heard a lot about the voice of the BBC and about how its people come from the same background. That may have been true some time ago, but I think it has changed over the past couple of decades. Partly because of the move to Manchester, there is now a range of northern voices across 5 Live and BBC News. It is always a great pleasure to show BBC apprentices around Parliament; they reflect the diversity of our nation.
There is no point in repeating what other hon. Members have said about the substance of the petitions. I certainly think that George Osborne was to blame, but he was not the only Chancellor of the Exchequer who approached TV licence fee negotiations in the same way. I do not think that Gordon Brown, in his time, was particularly more forthcoming with consultation. It is up to this House to put greater rules in place for how the licence fee is determined. There should be more consultation, and everyone should know the time period; it should not just be the Chancellor or the director-general coming out of a meeting and an announcement being made.
The future of the licence fee and of the BBC is a big decision for the country. The BBC belongs to us all, not just to the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the day. That should be reflected in how we award the royal charter to the BBC and in how we set the licence fee.
As always, Dame Cheryl, it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair. I thank and congratulate all 15 Members who have made speeches in this important debate. In the confessional spirit that has been prevalent this afternoon, I put it on the record that I, too, am a former employee of the BBC—I was there for about a decade. However, I have already spoken extensively about my time at the BBC, so in the time available I will concentrate on the issue that has dominated our debate: the decision to means-test the licence fee for those aged 75 and above.
In the SNP’s opinion, it is absolutely outrageous that the UK Government have sought to shift a welfare policy decision to the BBC, thereby not only shirking their responsibility to support our older citizens, but shamefully breaking their manifesto commitment on TV licences for the over-75s, as we have heard so many times this afternoon. Their 2017 manifesto made an explicit promise—on page 66, to be exact—that they would
“maintain…pensioner benefits, including free bus passes, eye tests, prescriptions and TV licences, for the duration of this parliament.”
I am glad that so many Conservative Members recognise that, particularly Huw Merriman.
I urge the Minister to explain why the Government are breaking their promise, and to commit to ensuring that our elderly population will not suffer because of such a damaging and ill-thought-out proposal. SNP Members add our voices to the ever-growing numbers, in all parts of the House and the length and breadth of these islands, who are calling for the UK Government to reverse their decision and stop abdicating responsibility by putting it on the BBC, particularly at this time of rising pensioner poverty. I wholeheartedly agree with Mr Vaizey and Christian Matheson that the Government were completely wrong to impose such a deal on the BBC in the first place—but then to criticise the BBC for doing what it was instructed to do simply beggars belief.
At a time when more and more of our older people are struggling to make ends meet, in many cases as a direct result of Tory austerity cuts, it would be a grave injustice to remove the free TV licence and expect older people to conjure up another £150 from somewhere. Scotland’s First Minister recently signed a letter to the Prime Minister urging the UK Government to guarantee that free TV licences for the over-75s would be protected. That letter was signed by every leader of Scotland’s major political parties, with the exception of Ruth Davidson of the Scottish Conservatives. Scotland’s First Minister and the other party leaders signed the letter because they know that the UK Government already provide one of the lowest state pensions in the developed world. Our older people need more financial support, not less, particularly at a time of rising costs.
Following its consultation process, the BBC announced that from June 2020 only those people who are aged 75 or above and in receipt of pension credit will continue to receive free TV licences. However, I argue strongly that means-testing on the basis of pension credit has been shown to be fundamentally flawed. I take issue with the assertion of the corporation’s director-general, Tony Hall, and its chairman, Sir David Clementi, that using pension credit means that the pensioners in most need will be protected. That is simply not the case.
It is currently estimated that four in 10 pensioner households eligible for pension credit do not receive it, for one reason or another. Just last month, the charity Independent Age found that more than 1 million pensioner households across the UK are living in poverty because the Government failed to act on unpaid pension credit, and that since 2017 the Government have benefited from £7 billion in unclaimed pension credit. As a result, there will be hundreds of thousands of poor pensioners who should qualify but do not, and who will now have to find an extra £150 to pay for a TV licence.
What about those pensioners who just miss out on qualifying for pension credit? They are hardly living the life of Riley, and by no stretch of the imagination could they be considered wealthy, yet they will be hurt most by the decision. Perhaps Lord Hall and Sir David Clementi would care to reflect on the fairness and protection that they argue is being afforded to this group of people. After years of Tory austerity, and the deep financial uncertainty caused by Brexit, the last thing that our older people need is the extra burden of finding the money for a TV licence.
I commend the words of the hon. Members for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan), for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), and for Lincoln (Karen Lee). The testimonies of their constituents could have come from any one of the 650 constituencies across these islands, because that is the reality. They display the depth of feeling among our constituents.
It is estimated that in Scotland this Tory TV licence fee will cost £40 million, with a quarter of a million over-75s set to lose out. Age Scotland also estimates that around 76,000 pensioners in Scotland do not receive pension credit, even though they are eligible for it. We in the SNP wholeheartedly agree with the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union, which has said that the over-75s’ licence is a welfare benefit and that it is the Government’s responsibility to pay it, and nobody else’s. Like BECTU and others, SNP Members will continue to call out this Government and the shameful subcontracting of their welfare responsibility to the BBC.
Stripping pensioners of their free TV licences is unacceptable. It will add pressure to already stretched pensioner budgets, and it will cause worry and angst among our poorest and most vulnerable people, who will be forced to make difficult choices about what they can and cannot afford. The responsibility for the TV licence lies with the UK Government. As we have heard so many times today, welfare policy should not be decided by the BBC and we strongly urge the Government to recognise that it is their responsibility to our older population to fully fund these licences.
I will finish by going right back to the beginning of the debate and the speech by Helen Jones. The words she used really resonate and the Government should reflect on them: she said that what the Government are doing to the over-75s really is the most mean-spirited of Government cuts.
I thank everyone who has spoken in this debate and I join those who have congratulated my hon. Friend Helen Jones on her speech. Once again, she gave an object lesson in how to open a debate and how to deliver a parliamentary speech, with her customary lucidity and gusto backing up the powerful facts she cited. She is a wonderful Chair of the Petitions Committee and long may she be able to introduce these debates on our behalf, setting the tone so well.
However, there was something that my hon. Friend said that I disagreed with. She said that she thought that this Government were the Arthur Daley of public administration. That is very unfair on Arthur Daley, Del Boy and others, because I cannot imagine for one moment that they would have tried to pull off a scam such as the over-75s scam that the Government have tried to pull off by outsourcing social policy in this way.
My hon. Friend also pointed out the extra costs that older people face, in relation to extra heating and so on, which I thought was a new and original point in the debate, although it is not often taken into account when discussing the importance of free TV licences for the over-75s. Also—I think people should take note of this—she quite rightly predicted that the scammers, conmen and fraudsters will soon move in on vulnerable older people when free TV licences for the over-75s are ended if the Government do not reverse this very poor decision.
John Howell revealed a new and interesting fact, because we had not known that in years gone by he was part of the BBC’s talent, and that he had even been big in India, which I had not anticipated. As for the substance of his speech, he seemed to suggest that advertising should perhaps be more used widely in the BBC as a funding model. I am afraid that is something that Labour Members disagree with.
My hon. Friend Stephen Morgan quite rightly pointed out that free TV licences for the over-75s is a social policy, and that if the Government want to change a social policy they should have the guts and commitment to make the argument themselves and put it in their manifesto. They should argue the case in Parliament themselves, take it to a vote here, have a consultation with the public—all the things that every Government should do when changing social policy. They should do that themselves, rather than taking BBC executives into a darkened room with a rubber hose and duffing them up until they agree to do this, under the threat of future Treasury cuts to BBC funding.
Even having done that, which was wrong in itself, for the Government subsequently to put into their 2017 general election manifesto the proposition that the free concession would be retained, when they had already outsourced it to the BBC, really was an example of the most egregious use of a general election manifesto—no wonder the manifesto went down like a lead balloon.
Mr Vaizey—unfortunately, he is no longer in his place—who is a distinguished former Minister in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, rightly referred to the wider work that the BBC does in our cultural and social life. To the many things he listed, I would add podcasts, which are becoming more and more important. I have just listened to “Shreds”, a brilliant podcast about the so-called Cardiff Five and the murder of Lynette White. I recommend it to right hon. and hon. Members as a fine example of public service broadcasting, as we used to call it, although I suppose in this case it is public service streaming or downloading. Brilliant content is being made available to licence fee-payers by the BBC in a way that is new and innovative.
The right hon. Member for Wantage also asked, quite clearly and straightforwardly, whether reforming free TV licences for the over-75s should be the BBC’s role, and he said that the answer is no. I therefore say to the Minister who is here today—the Minister for Digital and the Creative Industries, Margot James—that the right hon. Gentleman, a former Minister, made that absolutely clear. He was even a Minister in the Department when this decision was made, but he is absolutely clear that this is not a role that the BBC should play. That is her own right hon. Friend making that statement.
My hon. Friend Carolyn Harris, who unfortunately is also no longer in her place, mentioned her own 89-year-old mother—indeed, I have an 89-year-old mother who also relies on her television licence. My hon. Friend pointed out the amount of pension credit that remained unclaimed just in her own constituency of Swansea East, which is one of the more deprived parts of the country. She said that there was £6.5 million of unclaimed pension credit for her constituency alone, which prompts a question: what will happen if pension credit is claimed by a greater proportion of the population, as we all hope it will be, than is the case currently?
If that happens, the Government might find that, as a result of this policy, more people are claiming pension credit, which would be a good thing, but the Government would have to pay it. However, the increase would also mean an extra burden on the BBC, because of the greater number of free TV licences. I put down a written question to the Government to ask what estimate they had made of that effect and the answer was, “None whatsoever”. It is as if they are making all this up on the back of a fag packet as they go along.
Jack Brereton described the TV licence as “archaic”. I simply say to him, because he has obviously read and even swallowed some books on market economics along the way, that there are some things in life that are the opposite to the usual rule: they work in practice but not in theory. That is the case with the TV licence, which works in practice and has broad public support, as is clearly evidenced in the statistics that have been cited. It does not work in any economic theory textbook, but so what? It actually works very well and very effectively.
My hon. Friend Karen Lee, who unfortunately is also not here for the wind-ups, told us about the positive response that there had been to the petition in her constituency. Huw Merriman, who does a lot of work in this place on issues affecting the BBC, described it as “much-loved” but an “anomaly”. In some ways, he is echoing some of the sentiments that I would like to express from the Opposition Front Bench. However, he also admitted that the BBC had not really been funded to pay for the free TV licence concession and that the commitment in the Government’s manifesto up until 2022 should be honoured.
My hon. Friend Jessica Morden mentioned, very importantly, the impact that this change could have on people with dementia, and Martin Vickers said that it was “inevitable”—I think I am quoting him directly here—that the BBC
“would opt out at the first possible opportunity.”
The Government are trying to maintain the fiction that they did not need to opt out at the first opportunity, and that the BBC should continue to run this concession despite the fact that the funding has not been supplied.
My hon. Friend Christian Matheson pointed out that the outsourcing of blame is a speciality of this Government, and that this is a fine example. He also made the very important point that “talent” should not be used to refer just to on-air employees of the BBC. As we in the Opposition like to say, talent is everywhere; opportunity is not. We are here to try to extend opportunity much more widely than it currently is.
My hon. Friend Clive Lewis quoted research from Cardiff University, and being from Cardiff, I have to accept it at face value as a very good piece of research. He made some points about BBC bias and so on, but I would say to him that the BBC is still the most trusted source of news among the public, and is also subject to Ofcom regulation and has to meet standards. He is right that we should hold the BBC to account but, imperfect as it is—I know that he accepts this point—it still plays a role in maintaining the gravitational pull of standards in this country’s broadcasting that is rarely matched in other parts of the western world.
We all give my hon. Friend Hugh Gaffney our sympathies for the loss of his mother. He appealed to the Prime Minister, even at this late stage, to act on this matter. I would say to my hon. Friend Graham Stringer that he should not put everybody from Oxbridge in the same category. There are working-class Oxbridge graduates—I include myself in that category, as well as the final speaker, my hon. Friend John Grogan. He was at Oxford at the same time as me, and also came from a working-class background, breaking through the typical mould that my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton described. As usual, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley talked a lot of sense about the future of the BBC.
At the moment, the BBC is under attack from a number of different directions, and it is very sad that on the issue of the over-75s licence fee, the Government are joining that attack. It is sad that they are joining in the predictable attacks that come from some sections of the tabloid press, often owned—as my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich South said—by a small number of individuals. The Government should do more to stand up for the BBC and support it, not try to outsource their responsibilities to our national broadcaster. As Joni Mitchell once said,
“you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”
We should cherish the BBC as a uniquely British institution that works very effectively. Yes, let us hold it to account and try to improve it, but let us not use it as a whipping boy because of the Government’s own failure in their social policies. Finally, the Government’s handling of the over-75s licence fee is a disgrace. With the change of leadership, perhaps now is an opportunity for a change of mind.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl, and I congratulate Helen Jones on securing this important debate on these three petitions. I agree with the shadow Minister, Kevin Brennan, that the hon. Lady’s opening speech was an excellent account of so many of the issues that drove those petitions, and her own response to them.
Before I address some of the issues that have been raised, I will echo the huge positivity from across the Chamber about the role, importance and value of the BBC. We in this country are extremely fortunate to have the BBC, for all the reasons that right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned; it delivers an enormous public service, with hugely successful productions such as “Bodyguard”, “Strictly Come Dancing” and the “Today” programme. I would add a recent one, “Gentleman Jack”, which is absolutely fantastic.
I am glad my right hon. Friend loved it. It was a series that illustrated the importance of diversity in the BBC: a regional series set in Halifax, written by a BAFTA-winning director and playwright, Sally Wainwright—also from Yorkshire—and co-produced by BBC Studios and Lookout Point. I wish that such a series had been aired when I was growing up in the 1970s.
Of course, it is the licence fee that delivers that public value and allows the BBC to reach UK audiences everywhere, from the TVs in our homes to all the gadgets and devices that we carry around with us. The BBC is also required to represent and cater for all sorts of niche interests that may well not attract the attention of a channel that depends on advertising, or even broad-based subscription revenues, for its identity and position. The BBC received close to £3.7 billion in licence fee income last year, and its unique position of providing distinctive content in under-served genres to under-served audiences is vital.
Right hon. and hon. Members will know that we carefully considered the question of the licence fee as part of the BBC charter review process in 2015 and 2016. We found that independent research demonstrated a great deal of public interest in the licence fee. Some 60% of people surveyed backed it as the least worst option, as my right hon. Friend Mr Vaizey mentioned. For 60%, the licence fee was the mode of payment that they most supported, with fewer than 3% backing either an advertising model or a subscription-based model. Those figures are quite powerful, which is why we have committed to maintaining the licence fee funding model for at least the duration of this new 11-year charter period, which will bring us to the end of 2027. That provides the BBC with the funding certainty that it needs to thrive and deliver its mission and public purposes.
The media landscape is changing all the time, and citizens and consumers have more choice than ever before, particularly in the form of subscription-based services. However, the BBC’s content remains hugely popular. Some 91% of adults in the UK use its services each week, spending an average of 18 hours watching, listening to or using those services. Such figures demonstrate the continuing importance of the BBC in the fast-changing and increasingly competitive media landscape. In addition, the BBC directly invests over £2 billion in the UK’s creative industries each year, and invests billions of pounds in the digital and high-tech industries that support content creation and distribution. It is therefore a very important contributor not only to our shared experiences and public life but to the economy.
I now turn to the over-75s’ licence fee concession. Of course, the Government recognise the importance of television to people of all ages, particularly older people. We have heard a lot today from Members who, having talked to their constituents, have recounted what we all know: that the television can provide a lifeline to older people, particularly those who are recently bereaved or live alone, as a way of staying connected with the world. Right hon. and hon. Members have made that point clear, and I wholeheartedly agree with those sentiments.
However, if we cast our minds back four or five years to the time of the 2015 funding settlement, the Government had an expectation that all public services and public institutions had to find some economies and play their part in reducing the budget deficit overall and bringing some stability and sense to the public finances. Older people, like everybody else, mostly agreed with the need to do so, although they did not necessarily agree with all the means that were identified as routes towards restoring that stability and sense. However, it was agreed with the BBC that the responsibility for that concession would transfer to the BBC by June 2020.
In return, the Government closed the iPlayer loophole so that more people paid the licence fee. Many more people now pay the licence fee, leading to an uptick in the BBC’s revenues. The Government also committed to increase the licence fee in line with inflation during the charter period, which for the first time gave the BBC a more sustainable income for the future. At the time, the Government and the BBC agreed it was a fair deal. Indeed, the director-general 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.”
Parliament debated the issue extensively in passing the Digital Economy Act 2017 and approving the transfer of the legal responsibility for the concession to the BBC. I was a Whip in that Government, and I can tell Members—I am sure you will remember this too, Dame Cheryl—that we had to compromise greatly on a number of very contentious issues, but this was not one of them.
I will not let the Minister get away with that absolute rubbish. We tabled extensive amendments in Committee and on Report and opposed the proposal throughout. It was a highly contentious matter.
To be fair to the hon. Gentleman, he has a fair point—that the matter was contentious—but the proposal got through without the Government having to make compromises, unlike other things. For example, Members might remember the proposals to change Sunday trading laws. That is one of several examples of legislation that the Government had to change because opposition was so great. This transfer of responsibility did not attract the same level of opposition. Enough Members voted it through and Parliament therefore approved it, which is something we have to bear in mind. The responsibility was therefore passed to the BBC with parliamentary approval, and it was accepted by BBC governors and the director-general, no less.
I am willing to take more interventions on the other points that I have addressed, but I will turn to perceived bias and the BBC. Under its royal charter, the BBC has a duty to deliver high-quality, impartial and accurate news coverage and content. Members have already mentioned that 90% of the public value the news coverage of the BBC and believe in its impartiality. As with all other broadcasters, the BBC is subject to the Ofcom broadcasting code, which includes requirements on accuracy and impartiality. Ofcom is now firmly established as the new external regulator for the BBC. It will act to safeguard the high standards of impartiality that already exist at the BBC.
The Government are clear that the licence fee is the right funding model. It is clear that Ofcom’s robust approach to regulation will safeguard the impartiality that the BBC has a duty to observe. The licence fee concession was passed over, so I do not criticise the BBC for making the decision that it did. The BBC accepted the responsibility, and we should now let it get on and deliver at least a free licence to those over-75s who qualify for pension credit. As the shadow Minister said, the BBC will now write to all people in receipt of a free television licence with the new rules, setting out how they can apply, and I am hopeful that the decision will to a certain extent rectify the underclaiming of pension credit. Those 37% of people over the age of 75 who are entitled to pension credit will now have another incentive to claim it.
This has been an interesting debate. I thank all Members who have spoken on the various petitions that we are discussing. Some extremely interesting points have been made, but time does not allow me to go through them now. I thank the Minister for her sterling defence of the licence fee. In particular, I point out to her that I doubt whether that excellent programme “Gentleman Jack” would ever have been made by a commercial broadcaster. A pitch to a commercial broadcaster for a programme about gay women in early 19th-century Yorkshire would never have got beyond first base. It is an excellent programme.
However, I am sorry that the Minister did not respond—in fact, she probably cannot respond—to the real concern expressed about pensioners who will lose their free TV licence. That matter must be taken up higher up in Government by the Treasury. We need to ensure that our pensioners are protected. We certainly opposed that change at the time, and I know that other Members did too. We must admit that the current situation does not work and that the BBC should not be deciding social policy at all, and we must change the system to protect our pensioners.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered e-petitions 234627, 234797 and 235653 relating to the BBC.