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BBC — [Phil Wilson in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:36 pm on 15th July 2019.

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Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Conservative, Bexhill and Battle 5:36 pm, 15th July 2019

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.