BBC Debate

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Andrew Bridgen Excerpts
Monday 15th July 2019

(1 year, 1 month ago)

Westminster Hall
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Helen Jones Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 4:40 p.m.

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.

Andrew Bridgen Portrait Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con) - Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 4:40 p.m.

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Helen Jones Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 4:43 p.m.

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 the Member for Leeds North West (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.

Andrew Bridgen Portrait Andrew Bridgen - Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 4:47 p.m.

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Helen Jones Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 4:47 p.m.

I will as the hon. Gentleman has been bobbing up and down.

Andrew Bridgen Portrait Andrew Bridgen - Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 4:48 p.m.

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.

Helen Jones Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 4:43 p.m.

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. The right hon. Member for South West Surrey (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. The right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson)—I was going to say “for Henley,” but he does move about a lot. [Interruption.] I apologise to the hon. Member for Henley (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—

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John Howell Portrait John Howell (Henley) (Con) - Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 4:53 p.m.

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. The hon. Member for Warrington North (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 the Member for Ashford (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.

Andrew Bridgen Portrait Andrew Bridgen - Hansard

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.

John Howell Portrait John Howell - Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 5:01 p.m.

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 the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) has said many of them already, so I will not comment.

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Stephen Morgan Portrait Stephen Morgan - Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 5:09 p.m.

I absolutely agree, and I echo the comments from my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (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.

Andrew Bridgen Portrait Andrew Bridgen - Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 5:09 p.m.

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?

Stephen Morgan Portrait Stephen Morgan - Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 5:10 p.m.

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.

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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.

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Martin Vickers Portrait Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con) - Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 5:50 p.m.

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 the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) and my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (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.

The hon. Member for Warrington North (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. The hon. Member for Lincoln (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.

Andrew Bridgen Portrait Andrew Bridgen - Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 5:54 p.m.

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?

Martin Vickers Portrait Martin Vickers - Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 5:55 p.m.

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.