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I pray in support of my Bill, Mr. Greg Dyke. Although in the end he did not have the opportunity to become Mayor of London I am sure he might find favour with an incoming Conservative Government as a potential candidate to oversee an independent body or board to distribute resources in respect of genuine public service broadcasting.

One of the biggest arguments against the licence fee is the duke and dustman argument, which was used extensively against the advocates of the community charge. However, students had to pay only 20 per cent. of the community charge. Under the licence fee, they have to pay the full charge even though they may live in a shared house and watch no BBC television at all, merely having a TV card on their laptop. In that respect, the licence fee is worse than the community charge in terms of its impact on those who are less able to afford it. Indeed, it is said that more than one third of adults watch less than five hours of BBC television a week and more than one in eight watches less than 15 minutes a week. At least one could argue that the community charge was used for the collection of refuse and everyone contributed because they needed that service, but even that justification is not available for the BBC licence fee.

Richard Younger-Ross: The hon. Gentleman made a pertinent point about some of the people who are asked to pay the licence fee, and some consideration should perhaps be given to how student households are affected.
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I remember that elderly people in my constituency thought the community charge unfair and found it hard to pay, but TV licences are free for the over-75s and many people qualify for concessions; for example, the blind concession reduces the cost by 50 per cent. I do not recall that blind people had a concession on their community charge. People who live in residential care may be entitled to a reduced-fee TV licence under the accommodation for residential care concession and so on. The hon. Gentleman may be distorting the concessions that were made under the community charge.

Mr. Chope: There is a limit to how far one can draw the analogy between the community charge legislation and the BBC licence fee.

Richard Younger-Ross: The hon. Gentleman started it.

Mr. Chope: I started it, but where I think I am on to a winner is that, just as when people started to think about the community charge they became hostile towards it, particularly towards its perceived unfairness, so there is increasing hostility towards the unfairness of the BBC licence fee. Earlier this week, I was talking to the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Bill Etherington), who is much exercised by the unfairness of the licence fee and would much prefer the public service element of broadcasting to be funded by a progressive tax rather than a regressive one.

David Howarth: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way at that point because I have just heard him support arguments for a local income tax, which I never thought I would hear from him.

Mr. Chope: The hon. Gentleman will not draw me into that debate. I shall not comment, except to point out that I have never been persuaded of the case for a local income tax. Taxes are too high and should not be increased. The consequence of a local income tax would be that everybody would pay much more income tax and have less money to spend on their own priorities.

To answer the hon. Member for Teignbridge, it is not as though there is no cost associated with the concession for the over-75s: the taxpayer pays £520 million a year for it. It is presented as an act of generosity by the Government, but if the Government have £520 million to spend on the over-75s, they should give them the money in their pocket, so that they can spend it as they wish, rather than handing it as a proxy payment, made on their behalf, that goes toward the funding of the BBC. The redirection of that taxpayers’ money—£520 million—would be another side benefit of the enactment of the Bill.

The March 2006 White Paper “A public service for all: the BBC in the digital age” contained a justification for the BBC licence fee, stating:

That is hardly a ringing endorsement.

Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman may not think that that is a good justification, but surely the inescapable logic of that statement is that every other form of funding would be worse?

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Mr. Chope: That was the assessment at the time of the White Paper, but one of the problems is that so many of the alternative forms of funding have been the subject of misrepresentation such as we have heard from some of the diehard defenders of the licence fee in the Chamber today.

The White Paper also quoted Ofcom, citing

this is one of the most spurious and specious arguments that I have heard—

If that is true, why are the Government funding the licence fee—providing a luxury—for the over-75s? In fact, most people regard having access to television receiving equipment or possessing a mobile device that can receive television as essential, just as they regard having a telephone as essential. The question then arises about the use to which the equipment is put, but to describe having television receiving equipment as “something of a ‘luxury’” is to be out of touch with today’s reality.

Recent polls have provided quite a lot of evidence of people’s concern about the BBC licence fee arrangements. On 18 August, The Guardian published a MORI poll showing that 47 per cent. of respondents disagreed with the proposition that the BBC licence fee provided value for money, and only one in three agreed with it. I suspect that a closer look at the figures would reveal evidence to suggest that the BBC is in breach of its duty under the charter to provide value for money.

I do not want to be drawn into a debate on what is causing people to think that the BBC does not provide value for money. One of the reasons they are saying that might be that they never watch or do not have access to BBC programmes, but another reason might be the very high salaries that the BBC pays to some of its top managers and the very large number of managers in the organisation.

Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): Excessive.

Mr. Chope: As my hon. Friend obviously knows, leaving aside the people on the board, the BBC has 744 senior managers. Of those, 672 have salaries in excess of £70,000 a year; 343 have salaries in excess of £100,000 a year; 172 have salaries in excess of £130,000 a year—I cannot remember whether we have passed your salary scale yet, Madam Deputy Speaker—83 have salaries in excess of £160,000 a year; 39 have salaries in excess of £190,000; and 13 have salaries in excess of £250,000 a year. These people are not the great artists but the managers. I shall not even talk about the £195,000-a-year pension payable to Jenny Abramsky.

Such salaries create a feeling among the public, who have to pay the licence fee, that something has gone wrong in getting value for money. Whenever the BBC is challenged on the topic, it denies that there is a problem, but parliamentary scrutiny should include bringing in the National Audit Office to audit properly what goes on in the BBC. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) supports that proposition.

The people who are concerned about the BBC but who also have the BBC’s best interests at heart include Antony Jay, the creator of “Yes Minister” and a man
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who knows his way around television broadcasting very well. In a recent article, he states his belief that, for lovers of the BBC, the best thing to do is to get the BBC to face up to the reality that a different system from the present one is needed. He says:

On where the money would come from if not from the licence fee, he says it would come

although he thinks that that could be increased if the BBC became more professional in its marketing. He also thinks that there are opportunities to fund the BBC in other ways, including the equivalent of an Arts Council budget. He does not want to see the BBC fade away, but does not think that the present system is sustainable. He thinks that a mix of alternative sources of funding, perhaps including viewer subscriptions, is the way forward.

The total amount of taxpayers’ money already being put into public service broadcasting, in addition to the amount that people pay through the licence fee, is not far short of £1 billion a year. There is £264 million for the World Service and £508.4 million for the free licences for the over-75s. A significant sum—we do not have exact figures—is required to meet the costs to the Ministry of Justice of running the courts dealing with licence fee evasion cases. According to the last figures available, in 2006, 129,000 such cases came before the courts, resulting in 113,874 fines being imposed. All those proceedings had to be funded and were an enormous burden on Her Majesty’s Courts Service. Indeed, 24 of the cases resulted in people being sentenced to imprisonment. Those costs are obviously met directly by the taxpayer.

There are also collection costs, and another element of taxpayer funding of broadcasting has recently been revealed: sponsorship of ITV. It came as quite a revelation to people that the Government were giving us a soft sell of their policies by providing sponsorship money for various ITV programmes that were to do the Government’s propaganda job for them.

A very large sum of money going into broadcasting comes from the public purse. It ill behoves anybody to suggest that it would be anathema, and inconsistent with what goes on at the moment, to transfer some of the money needed for public service broadcasting from the licence fee to another pot of public money. Some people argue that it would be dangerous to mix public funding with advertising, but that is already happening at S4C, which has direct Government grant as well as advertising. That is relevant, too.

Are people outside the House concerned about the issue? There are, to my knowledge, several e-petitions on the subject. One of them has been submitted by David Cormack, who says:

alternative forms of income generation.

Another e-petition has been organised by BBCresistance. The fact that such organisations have been set up shows the strength of feeling on the subject among ordinary people. I have also come across the Campaign to Abolish the Television Licence. Again, there is a link between its arguments and the arguments against the community charge or poll tax. That indicates that we need to think about where we go from here, and shows that the debate is highly topical.

I shall conclude, because it is important that other Members have a chance to speak. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage, who is on the Front Bench, will respond to the debate for my party. He will know that, in 1971, an incoming Conservative Government abolished the licence fee for radio. I do not expect him to pledge today that an incoming Conservative Government in 2010 will abolish the TV licence fee, but I hope that he will accept that we cannot let matters rest here, to use the immortal words of our right hon. Friends the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Foreign Secretary. Those are words relevant to the Lisbon treaty and the EU constitution, and they are equally relevant to this debate about the licence fee. The present situation is unsustainable. Public service broadcasting by ITV is in grave jeopardy and the BBC licence fee payers are in revolt. They are looking to an imaginative, incoming Conservative Government to do something about it, and I hope that they will.

11.15 am

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to follow such a self-proclaimed good friend of the BBC. It is obvious that the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) has the best interests of the BBC at heart, as he said. The centrepiece of his speech was his reference to the licence fee as a tax on every household in the land, irrespective of ability to pay. I intend to try to deal with that issue. It is worth reflecting, as the hon. Gentleman himself mentioned, that he has form on the issue of taxes. He told the House, at 4.34 am in March 1990:

The hon. Gentleman referred to those who argue that the licence fee is the least worst system for funding the BBC. Winston Churchill said the same about democracy—that it was the least worst system of government. There is sometimes something to be said for the least worst system, and that is what I intend to concentrate my remarks on.

The hon. Gentleman has form on this issue: he introduced a ten-minute Bill to abolish the BBC licence fee just eight years ago. On that occasion, he quoted approvingly the Daily Star, which had said that

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I was waiting for him to give us examples of things that the BBC does well, but apart from the World Service I do not think that he referred to one thing that he treasured in the BBC.

I was looking at the things that the BBC has done since 2000, thinking that perhaps one of them might have tempted the hon. Gentleman to change his attitude to the licence fee—for example, Freeview, which is perhaps Greg Dyke’s greatest legacy to the nation. It brings digital TV to millions of people and is now the digital platform of choice. Perhaps freesat, a great collaborative venture between ITV and the BBC, or the iPlayer, which he mentioned, might have modified his attitude, or some of the great programmes that the BBC has produced since 2000. Programmes such as “Planet Earth” have been viewed by millions of viewers. The old argument that there was a golden age of the BBC that we have lost is deeply flawed. Programmes such as “Planet Earth” are watched by far more people than ever watched “Civilisation” in the 1970s, because of the expansion of education and BBC output.

I thought that perhaps some of the comedy might have tempted the hon. Gentleman to change his mind, albeit perhaps not the comedy on BBC3; it might not be to the hon. Gentleman’s taste, even though the channel is increasing its reach. However, some of the great comedy on BBC2 might have appealed to him, such as “The Office”. Perhaps, dare I say it, “Grumpy Old Men” might have tempted him to modify his position on the BBC. However, none of those programmes did.

Mr. Chope: As I understand it, the hon. Gentleman is chairman of the all-party pro-BBC group, and I congratulate him on the research that has obviously been done for him, but does he accept that he is effectively trying to attack an Aunt Sally? I am attacking not the BBC or its content, but the fact that it is funded through the licence fee. I hope that he will address that issue and will argue why it would not be possible to have an alternative way of funding the BBC without losing what he regards as the best parts of the BBC.

Mr. Grogan: I intend to develop that argument exactly as the hon. Gentleman suggests. I accept that he has the best interests of the BBC at heart because he says so. I do chair the all-party parliamentary BBC group. We like to regard ourselves as critical friends of the BBC and I have one or two criticisms to make as I develop my argument.

The system of collection of the licence fee is fairly robust. When the BBC took over responsibility for collecting the licence fee in 1990, 90 per cent. of the fee was collected. The figure has gone up to 95 per cent. The costs of collection are £120 million, as the hon. Gentleman said, but the BBC has reduced them considerably over recent years. The present cost is only 4 per cent. of the licence fee, as opposed to 5 per cent. when we had the ten-minute Bill debate in 2000—a saving of £30 million.

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