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Brendan O'Hara Excerpts
Monday 15th July 2019

(12 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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John Grogan (Keighley) (Lab) Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 6:34 p.m.

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (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 the Member for Warrington North (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.

The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (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.

The hon. Member for Henley (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 the Member for City of Chester (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.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara (Argyll and Bute) (SNP) - Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 6:44 p.m.

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 the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (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 the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) and the hon. Member for City of Chester (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 the hon. Member for Warrington North (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.

Kevin Brennan Portrait Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab) - Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 6:51 p.m.

I thank everyone who has spoken in this debate and I join those who have congratulated my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (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.

The hon. Member for Henley (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 the Member for Portsmouth South (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.

The right hon. Member for Wantage (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, the hon. Member for Stourbridge (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 the Member for Swansea East (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.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (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 the Member for Lincoln (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. The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (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 the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) mentioned, very importantly, the impact that this change could have on people with dementia, and the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (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 the Member for City of Chester (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 the Member for Norwich South (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 the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (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 the Member for Blackley and Broughton (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 the Member for Keighley (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.