BBC Debate

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Jack Brereton Excerpts
Monday 15th July 2019

(12 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab) - Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 5:21 p.m.

Thank you for your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I, too, thank my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for opening the debate.

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.

Jack Brereton Portrait Jack Brereton (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Con) - Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 5:26 p.m.

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 the hon. Member for Warrington North (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 the Member for Henley (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.

Helen Jones Hansard

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?

Jack Brereton Portrait Jack Brereton - Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 4:15 p.m.

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.

Helen Jones Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 5:29 p.m.

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Jack Brereton Portrait Jack Brereton - Hansard

No, I have already given way to the hon. Lady.

I thank Channel 4 for taking on the BBC hit pottery programme, Stoke-on-Trent’s own “The Great Pottery Throw Down”, following the BBC’s unfortunate and, frankly, wrong decision not to commission a new series.

Huw Merriman Portrait Huw Merriman (Bexhill and Battle) (Con) - Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 5:30 p.m.

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.

Jack Brereton Portrait Jack Brereton - Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 5:31 p.m.

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.

Andrew Bridgen Portrait Andrew Bridgen - Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 5:33 p.m.

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.

Jack Brereton Portrait Jack Brereton - Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 5:34 p.m.

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.

Karen Lee (Lincoln) (Lab) Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 5:29 p.m.

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.