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BBC — [Phil Wilson in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 7:03 pm on 15th July 2019.

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Photo of Margot James Margot James The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport 7:03 pm, 15th July 2019

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.