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17 Oct 2008 : Column 1052

This is a technical amendment. The Minister went into great detail and has answered the questions, so I do not want unduly to delay the House. This is important legislation because it is key to fighting climate change. It promotes a drive towards new localism and is key to promoting energy independence.

The Bill will now, I hope, complete its passage, and the Government’s change of heart, after the initial obstruction, was greatly helped by the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint). With the Minister at the Dispatch Box also being so supportive, we can all agree that the sooner the Bill reaches the statute book, the better.

Richard Younger-Ross: It is unusual to be told, when one has prepared for one debate, that another debate has been put before it and that one has to read a brief on a very technical amendment before we get to the substance of the day. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) for his assistance in briefing me on this technical matter. With his learned knowledge, he may also have assisted the Minister earlier. I know the fear with which my hon. Friend is regarded in some circles because of his abilities, and his books sit in the Library and are referred to on such technical matters by all parties.

10.30 am

The amendment clarifies that the Bill does not create a new order-making power for national authorities—this Parliament and the Welsh Assembly—but simply relies on the existing powers of those authorities. The amendment brings clarification to the Bill’s intent to allow local councils to set targets in their areas for on-site renewable energy and on low-carbon electricity energy efficiency standards in addition to national requirements. The Bill will cover England and Wales, and it will also require developers to source at least 10 per cent. of any new building’s energy from renewable sources, implementing nationwide the so-called Merton rule. However, as Baroness Hamwee pointed out in the other place, Richmond is actually moving to 20 per cent., which shows that local authorities can make even greater progress. The rule was named after a planning policy first adopted by the London borough of Merton. The Government had implemented policies in this area, notably the planning policy statement on climate change, issued by the Government on 17 December 2007 after public consultation. Some councils, such as Merton, have already adopted environmentally friendly strategies, but the picture across England and Wales is rather mixed.

In conclusion—I have been brief, although that is not always the case when one speaks from the Front Bench—the Bill is much needed. I have in my constituency a company called Centrax, which makes combined heat and power units—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I hope that the points that the hon. Gentleman intends to make are related to the Lords amendment.

Richard Younger-Ross: For fear of straying—

Mr. Khan: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman began his contribution by saying that the main substance of the day would
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come later. For the record, I wish to make it clear that—as far as we are concerned—this is the main substance of the day. This is a very important amendment from the other place, and we are pleased that the House is likely to accept it. It is important to clarify that point.

Madam Deputy Speaker: I am not sure that that was a point of order. Perhaps we could now concentrate on the remarks from the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) that relate to the Lords amendment.

Richard Younger-Ross: Any comments that I made about substance referred to length of time, not necessarily import. This Bill is certainly more important than the next Bill, although—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I have been fairly lenient with the hon. Gentleman, but I must now say that his comments must be in direct relation to the Lords amendment before us on this Bill.

Richard Younger-Ross: I have nothing further to say, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Fallon: With the leave of the House, I wish to thank colleagues who have supported this amendment this morning for their kind words. I also congratulate the Minister on his debut performance.

The only substantive point that has been made this morning is the allegation by the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) that the Bill is somehow a blank cheque. I wish to reassure him on that point. The Bill could have been construed—although I agree with the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) that it was unlikely that a court would have done so—as conferring a new order-making power that did not exist elsewhere in authority. However, the Bill would ensure that any future enactment is fully approved by this House, so it is not a blank cheque. Therefore, if we want local authorities to go further and faster, as we do, they will be able to do so.

I remind the House that this is a permissive Bill. I am most grateful for the support that it has been shown, and I hope that it will now proceed.

Lords amendment agreed to.

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Broadcasting (Television Licence Fee Abolition) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

10.35 am

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

As the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) said, this is the substance of the day. It is also a highly topical subject, notwithstanding the fact that I gave notice about 10 months ago of my desire to debate this subject on this day, the last day on which Members have a chance to discuss potential private Members’ legislation. Obviously, because it is the last day on which private Members’ Bills can be discussed in this Session, the Bill has no prospect of reaching the statute book. Even if it were to conclude all its stages in this House today, it would not have time to be considered in the other place. So this debate is more along the lines of the debates that we used to have on Fridays when I was first elected—on a subject of a Back Bencher’s choosing with a motion at the end of the debate. The removal of that opportunity from Back Benchers was a backward step, because there are several issues of concern to them that may not necessarily be of such concern to Front Benchers, or they may be nervous of initiating a debate on such issues for fear of misrepresentation.

We have the prospect today of having an excellent debate, and I shall begin by welcoming the Minister who will respond to it. This debate is about abolishing the television licence fee, which is more accurately described as the television tax. It is not about abolishing the BBC. One can be a friend of the BBC—as I am—without being a supporter of the licence fee, although the lengths to which the BBC sometimes goes to defend the licence fee often create enemies.

I count myself with those who consider the World Service to be the best that the BBC produces—impartial, informative and often entertaining, with the ability to separate news from comment. It is all funded by direct taxpayer grant via the Foreign Office, which last year amounted to £264 million. That money was raised from the taxpayer on the basis of ability to pay. The World Service encapsulates the best of BBC values and is a living demonstration of the fact that those values do not depend on the licence fee. Let us hope that during this debate no one is tempted to resort to that tired misrepresentation that only the licence fee can protect BBC values.

In a recent MORI poll, to which I shall refer again later, it became clear that the public do not believe that the protection of BBC values is dependent on licence fee funding. Last week, I was present when Michael Grade, now the boss of ITV, addressed a breakfast meeting organised by the Royal Television Society. In commenting on Ofcom’s public service broadcasting review, he described the “seismic shifts” under way in broadcasting and called for “a new settlement” to sustain the health of British broadcasting. He said that that was needed urgently and had to be implemented before the end of 2012. That date coincides with the requirements of my Bill—that the licence fee should be abolished no later than 31 December 2012, by which time the digital
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switchover will be completed. So, what is wrong with the licence fee at the moment? It is a tax on almost every household in the land, irrespective of ability to pay.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): For the most part, the hon. Gentleman is making an interesting case. How would he respond to the large number of my constituents who do not possess television sets and are therefore persecuted by the licence fee authorities? Perhaps we might return to that subject later. Under his proposal, those people would end up paying tax for a service that they do not want to receive. They would therefore be worse off than they are now, as long as they are not further interfered with by the authorities.

Mr. Chope: The hon. Gentleman’s point is fair. I am concerned, as he is, about those people who feel that the licence fee is an impost. They do not want to watch television and they certainly do not want to watch BBC television, yet they find themselves having to pay the fee. If we funded the public service element of the BBC output in some other way, whether by subscription, direct grant or a mixture of advertising and sponsorship—all those options have been proposed by different organisations—the burden that the hon. Gentleman says would fall on his constituents through direct taxation would not be anything like the burden that is faced by those who have to pay the licence fee.

The situation would be more analogous to the situation with the Arts Council. The Arts Council is funded directly by the taxpayer to the extent of about £500 million a year, and it decides how to reallocate those funds between different deserving causes that promote the arts in accordance with Arts Council principles. My Bill does not address the issue of what to put in place in terms of funding for the BBC, but it would prompt a big debate about alternative funding. I hope that the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) agrees that the Arts Council model in relation to public services for the arts might be a valid one.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman has just reached the point that troubled me about his Bill. Basically, this is a very anarchist approach to funding our public service broadcaster. He wants to sweep away the existing method of financing through the licence fee and has only the vaguest idea of what to put in its place. The Bill should never have seen the light of day. It does not in any way, shape or form deal with the fundamental issue, which is worthy of debate, about the funding of the BBC. It simply sweeps away what exists now and provides nothing in its place. If the Bill were to be approved by the House—technically and theoretically, it could go through all its stages today—the consequence would be that the BBC would close down tomorrow.

Mr. Chope: That is not correct. It is not incumbent on legislators to impose any alternative solution. There are already powers under the relevant legislation for the Government to fund the BBC in ways other than through the licence fee.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I commend my hon. Friend for his Bill. It is wonderfully short, so I am surprised that the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) has not read clause 2(2), which states
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that were the Bill to be enacted, it would come into force on 31 December 2012. The idea that the BBC would shut down tomorrow is simply not true.

Mr. Chope: And it would not even shut down then. All that the Bill would do is ensure that the despised compulsory impost of the BBC TV licence fee would be removed from the statute book.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Apart from the fact that the hon. Gentleman seems to have misunderstood the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (David Howarth), he also seems to think that it is perfectly acceptable to impose a requirement on the BBC to generate advertising revenue. Does the hon. Gentleman have any idea of the financial strictures facing ITV and the other commercial elements of the broadcasting sector? What exactly would he do for ITV and the others by way of compensation for removing hundreds of millions of pounds from the BBC and requiring the BBC to compete on a level footing with that sector while advertising revenue is diminishing?

Mr. Chope: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was present at the Royal Television Society breakfast at which I was present, but he would have heard Michael Grade explaining ITV’s predicament. ITV has a public service broadcasting obligation, in terms of the licences under which it operates, and Michael Grade estimates that in the next couple of years a lot of the ITV companies will go into deficit in meeting that public service broadcasting objective. That is why he, Ofcom and others are arguing that we need a central fund of taxpayer-funded resources that can be drawn on by those who provide public service broadcasting for use in that particular type of broadcasting—not in general entertainment broadcasting.

Lembit Öpik: I am even more confused now. The hon. Gentleman is suggesting a central taxpayer-funded pot for public service broadcasting. I would be interested to know whether that would come from general taxation, in which case he will be taxing people who do not watch television. Alternatively, does he have some other plan for a form of taxation to provide the PSB requirements? We should also bear in mind that Michael Grade, who is a great man, had a very different point of view when he was at the BBC.

Mr. Chope: I shall not comment on whether Michael Grade had a different point of view when he was at the BBC. The hon. Gentleman’s point about having to fund public service broadcasting from general taxation and the idea that that would be an impost on those who do not benefit from that service are true, but the same is also true of funding for the Arts Council. If general taxpayers do not use any of the Arts Council sponsored or subsidised services, they could say that they were contributing to the Arts Council but not getting anything in return. The same is true of a host of other generally publicly funded services. Obviously it is true of the health service. People without children contribute to the cost of education through their taxes, although they do not see any direct benefit. Other people opt out of the system and end up paying twice. People opt out of the health service and those who are in good health pay without needing it at the moment.

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If we start suggesting that all taxpayers’ money should be allocated on a hypothecated basis, that is anathema to the Treasury and to many other policy makers. I must say that I disagree with the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik).

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): The hon. Gentleman tried to make a comparison between funding for the BBC and funding for the Arts Council, but surely that is like comparing chalk and cheese. The Arts Council has a specific remit within a limited field. The BBC provides arts programmes and educational programmes, and is required to produce public broadcasting for the general good, but it also provides a good deal of general entertainment. In some cases, the comparison is more like going to the cinema than the Arts Council. If people go to the cinema, they pay when they go through the door.

Mr. Chope: That would be so if I was suggesting that all the BBC’s services should be funded by such a body. I am talking about those services that can be described as containing a public service element. In a few minutes, I shall come to the comments made recently by a member of a body that has argued strongly in favour of setting up such an organisation. David Cox is a member of the Broadcasting Policy Group and that body has suggested that a new organisation should be set up to disburse public money for public service broadcasting.

He says that enthusiasts for public service broadcasting, such as him, want as much money as possible but recognise that there would have to be some constraints. In his article, he gives an estimate of how much he reckons would have to be raised in that regard.

Mr. Dismore: The hon. Gentleman has focused on television, but the BBC provides our national radio services, which are also funded from the licence fee. How does he propose that radio services should be funded? Is “Today in Parliament” to be sponsored, or subject to advertisements? If so, how will we ensure proper political neutrality in such advertisements and sponsorship?

Mr. Chope: The hon. Gentleman perpetuates a myth put forward by the BBC that we need £3.5 billion a year to fund BBC Radios 3 and 4, which cost about £50 million a year. In so far as they have a public service broadcasting element, they would be eligible, under my system or some of the systems being proposed, for taxpayer funding through a central grant. The suggestion that we need to spend £3.5 billion raised through the licence fee to ensure that the hon. Gentleman can listen to “Today in Parliament” or “Yesterday in Parliament” is a complete myth. Although the programme may be popular among Members in the Chamber today, I am not sure that many people outside this place listen to it—certainly not unless it is more entertaining and less intense than this debate is becoming.

Richard Younger-Ross: I thank the hon. Gentleman for graciously giving way again. If the Government are the body responsible for setting the tax level that the BBC receives, and given that they have had arguments with the BBC over some of the programmes that were
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to be broadcast and that the previous Conservative Government also had arguments with the BBC—a certain gentleman famous for telling people to get on their bikes was prone to attack the BBC—is there not a danger that Governments would use the threat of cutting the taxes as a way of trying to control the BBC’s output?

Mr. Chope: The best answer to the hon. Gentleman’s latest intervention is from Greg Dyke, the former director general of the BBC. In a recent article, he wrote:

That cost is about £120 million a year. He points out that such changes have already happened in the Netherlands and in some Scandinavian countries. Indeed, earlier this week, I was at a parliamentary meeting in Estonia and discussed such ideas with a parliamentarian from Belgium who told me that the same system had been adopted in Flanders and was likely to be extended to the rest of Belgium shortly.

Greg Dyke notes in his article that he is not sure that he will be loved by the BBC for making his comments, but he thinks there is great logic in scrapping the licence fee. He says that it has

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