MPs raise questions over future of BBC licence fee in Commons debate

The sustainability of the BBC TV licence fee will be a “big part” of charter renewal talks, a culture minister has said, as MPs questioned its long-term future.

BBC director-general Tim Davie has previously said he is open to a “more progressive” licence fee, with a consultation expected to be launched next year for the public to have their say.

Conservative frontbencher Julia Lopez said the issue has “preoccupied public debate on the BBC’s future most”, with a TV licence currently costing £169.50 a year – or £57 for black and white TV sets.

She told a Commons debate on the BBC mid-term charter review: “That will be a big part of the discussion around charter renewal – be without any doubt.

“The numbers paying the licence fee are falling whether people are advocates of it or not. The way audiences, particularly younger audiences, consume content is breaking their traditional relationship with the linear broadcasters, weakening the loyalty to and the love of the institution.

“Audiences feel that the BBC is not adequately reflecting them… and, as a consequence, they have lost trust in it and are starting to not want to pay the licence fee.”

Earlier in the debate, Conservative MP Sir William Cash (Stone) said: “Why should those who pay the licence fee, who feel that the BBC disregards their views and can be demonstrated to have experienced that, be forced to pay for its running?”

Sir William also claimed that “groupthink and woke” prevails in the BBC as he called for more political diversity in the national broadcaster.

Labour MP Justin Madders (Ellesmere Port and Neston) said the BBC has the potential to be the “last man standing” as traditional broadcasters become unable to compete with streaming services, but “the warning signs are there” for financial problems.

He said: “I note with interest the annual report on the licence fee produced by the BBC claims that they’ve visited over 72,000 premises without a licence, but then the report mysteriously fails to say what actual action that was taken as a result of that.

“And whilst it’s difficult to find precisely how many homes should be paying a licence fee, we can state with confidence that 72,000 visits is in itself a very small proportion of the number of properties that aren’t currently paying a licence fee.

“So it is, I think, time for an honest debate about what our expectations are about people paying the licence fee.”

Conservative MP Sir Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) said the BBC is successful at making programmes but “completely unable to compete” with streamers such as Amazon Prime and Netflix because it is not allowed to run subscription services in the same way.

He said: “Is there not a case for replacing a large proportion of the licence fee income with subscription income for those programmes, albeit it would still be necessary for the BBC to have some public subvention for its public service broadcasting, which plays such a key role in our national life?”

Conservative former minister Damian Collins said the BBC faces the challenge of the “potential decline” of licence fee revenues alongside a “reluctance” of consumers to pay much more than they are being asked to pay now.

He said: “The BBC has to do what it is starting to challenge itself to do, which is to consider how it can prioritise resources while maintaining its core principles, which I believe are fundamental to the BBC, that it is a publicly funded and universal service where there is something for everyone who pays into it.

“The challenge of how to deliver that in the modern era requires the BBC to look for alternative forms of revenue.”