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Parliamentarians decry BBC cuts

22 July 2020

More than 60 parliamentarians from across the political spectrum have contacted Dame Melanie Dawes, the chief executive of Ofcom, to express their joint concern about the latest cuts to national and regional BBC news and political programmes.

Ofcom is obliged by the BBC’s Royal Charter and the Communications Act 2003 to include conditions in its broadcast licences that comply with obligations on production and regional programming.

The politicians signed up to the letter asked Ofcom to exercise its regulatory duty and assess whether the cuts will endanger the BBC's ability to fulfill its statutory duties.

They also asked Ofcom to intervene, if necessary, to ensure that regional coverage of news and political affairs is not eroded, and ensure the corporation continues to serve the public interest.

In parliament on Tuesday 21 July, MPs debated the changes to the licence fee, BBC programming and job cuts in response to an urgent question tabled by Daisy Cooper.

Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said:

"The NUJ extends thanks to those parliamentarians who are prepared to stand with us to protect and defend the BBC.

"The government's penchant for under-funding and undermining Britain's largest public broadcaster has not stopped, not even during the covid crisis when the BBC has proved just how important it remains for the nation and the world.

"Instead of praising the journalists and staff who have been out reporting and working during the lockdown, the plan is to cut them.

"The NUJ remains committed to stand up to this relentless government vandalism, the BBC is not perfect but it is a key institution at the very heart of our society, it must be defended."

The full list of parliamentarians who have signed the letter to Ofcom -

Tahir 

Ali

Labour

Harriet 

Baldwin

Conservative

Paula

Barker

Labour

Clive 

Betts

Labour

Deidre 

Brock

SNP

Alan

Brown

SNP

Richard

Burgon

Labour

Ian 

Byrne

Labour

Wendy

Chamberlain

Lib Dem

Daisy

Cooper

Lib Dem

Jeremy 

Corbyn

Labour

Jon

Cruddas

Labour

Alex 

Cunningham

Labour

Lord Alf

Dubs

Labour

Michael 

Fabricant

Conservative

Marian

Fellowes

SNP

Lord Don

Foster 

Lib Dem

Lord George

Foulkes

Labour

Yvonne

Fovargue

Labour

Mary

Foy

Labour

Sir Roger

Gale

Conservative

Barry 

Gardiner

Labour

Neil 

Gray

SNP

Lillian 

Greenwood

Labour

Jonathan

Gullis

Conservative

Andrew 

Gwynne

Labour

Robert

Halfon

Conservative

Claire

Hanna

SDLP

Gordon

Henderson

Conservative

Mike

Hill

Labour

Meg 

Hillier

Labour

Sir George

Howarth

Labour

Christine 

Jardine

Lib Dem

Kim

Johnson

Labour

Diana 

Johnson

Labour

Darren 

Jones

Labour

Barbara

Keeley

Labour

Ian 

Lavery

Labour

Chris

Law

SNP

Clive 

Lewis

Labour

Tony

Lloyd

Labour

Chris 

Loder

Conservative

Rebecca

Long-Bailey

Labour

Caroline

Lucas

Green

Steve

McCabe

Labour

Stuart

McDonald

SNP

John 

McDonnell

Labour

Anne

McLoughlin

SNP

Rt Hon Lord

McNally

Lib Dem

Grahame

Morris

Labour

Gavin 

Newlands

SNP

John 

Nicolson

SNP

Kate

Osborne

Labour

Neil 

Parrish

Conservative

Liz 

Saville Roberts

Plaid Cymru

Henry 

Smith

Conservative

John 

Spellar

Labour

Chris

Stephens

SNP

Grahame

Stringer

Labour

Zarah 

Sultana 

Labour

Richard

Thomson

SNP

Christian

Wakeford

Conservative

Claudia

Webbe

Labour

Mick

Whitley

Labour

William 

Wragg

Conservative

Mohammed 

Yasin

Labour

On Tuesday 21 July, Daisy Cooper MP asked the secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport to make a statement on changes to the licence fee exemptions, programming and job losses at the BBC. The question prompted the following debate in parliament -

John Whittingdale, minister for media and data, responded by saying:

"The BBC has for decades played a vital role in this country’s cultural and civic life, and that has never been more true than during the last few months. During an unprecedented global crisis, it has helped to counter disinformation and share factual information about the coronavirus pandemic, while reinforcing important public health messaging."

He welcomed the BBC’s initial decision at the beginning of the lockdown to continue to grant the licence fee concession to the over-75s and said the government were "deeply disappointed" when the BBC board announced earlier this month that it would be ending that concession from 1 August. Explaining that four out of five of those previously eligible for a free TV licence will now have to pay, he said: "That is a decision for the BBC, but the government regret the approach that it has taken."

Whittingdale also said the 2015 funding settlement for the BBC was considered "generous" and added: "It is now essential that the BBC, having taken the decision to end the concession, gets the implementation of the change right and is not heavy-handed in its approach.

"While lockdown may be easing, older people across the country still face many challenges and still rely on their TV as much as they did a few weeks ago. The BBC can and should therefore do more to support older people, and it should look urgently at how it can use its substantial licence fee income to support older people and deliver for UK audiences of all ages."

Acknowledging that "many people have expressed concerns about cuts to regional programming as well as the BBC’s recent announcement of staffing reductions" he stressed that "both operational and editorial decisions are a matter for the BBC".

Daisy Cooper questioned whether the BBC should become "a de facto arm of the department for work and pensions" and laid the blame for the decision to end the licence fee concession for the over-75s and its ramifications with the Conservative government. She said:

"The government should never have asked the BBC to take that on, and the BBC should never have accepted it. Continuing with the licence fee scheme for the over-75s would have cost £745 million - a fifth of the BBC’s budget. To meet that cost without government funding, the BBC would have had to close all of the following: BBC 2, BBC 4, the BBC News channel, BBC Scotland, Radio 5 live and local radio stations, as well as many other cuts and reductions. As it happens, the means-tested scheme will still cost the BBC about £250 million, and to help meet that cost it has recently announced hundreds of job losses and programming cuts."

Cooper added that the government have been responsible for "secret deals with the BBC that have significantly diminished its ability to serve the British public" and asked the minister to commit to a transparent process involving Ofcom when the licence fee negotiations start again next year.

Chris Matheson, the shadow minister for digital, culture, media and sport, highlighted the context of the current problems with BBC funding: "in this licence period alone, the BBC has lost £800 million in funding, even before bearing the cost of licences for the over -75s." He said:

"The Conservatives made a manifesto promise to maintain the licence for the over-75s. They broke it. Instead, they passed responsibility to the BBC, knowing that it would never be able to afford that responsibility. Since then, they have tried to blame the BBC at every turn, for every cut of every service, and for every redundancy. No doubt they will try to blame the BBC when bills start landing on pensioners’ doorsteps in August and September."

Matheson also stressed the important role of public interest journalism: "The conservative government are, at best, relaxed about reducing the BBC’s budget, because it is the only lever they have to control the BBC’s capacity to ask tough questions on behalf of the British people."

Rachel Hopkins MP said: "The cuts of 450 jobs in regional news in England amount to a loss of one in six jobs."

John Nicolson MP contributed to the debate by calling the current licence fee settlement a "dreadful Tory deal" and said the prospect of pensioners being pursued through the courts for licence payments was "a double whammy of cruelty, especially during covid".

Whittingdale confirmed the BBC would write to the over-75s to say they are potentially still eligible for a free TV licence (if they are on pension credit) and he said this was perhaps "the best marketing tool for pension credit that we have ever seen."

Jeff Smith MP agreed with colleagues to say:

"the government should not be outsourcing their welfare policy or, indeed, their manifesto promises to the BBC. Funding for the BBC’s UK public services is now around 24 per cent less in real terms than if the cost of the licence fee had risen with inflation from 2010, and the BBC is facing £800 million of cuts."

Florence Eshalomi MP focused on the plight of BBC freelance workers:

"Some of them have had long-term contracts with the BBC for many years, and they are taxpayers and licence fee payers, but they have not benefited from the same support that other taxpayers have rightly received from the government, simply because of the type of contract they are on."

Eshalomi urged the minister to persuade the chancellor to fill the current gaps in financial support and end the one-size-fits-all approach to withdrawing the covid related support schemes.

During the debate, various conservative MPs claimed that the BBC is 'too metropolitan' with a disproportionate focus on London and Manchester; they also emphasised that the corporation was 'out of touch' with the many and diverse communities it is supposed to serve.

Dr Rupa Huq MP refuted some of these claims by saying that at the start of the lockdown, 94 per cent of all Britons used the BBC and this included 86 per cent of young adults. She also brought attention to the cuts aimed at journalists working on the BBC's output and she stressed that the BBC's management and senior staff were not similarly affected by the proposed job losses.

Matt Western MP said:

"In 1968, long before the minister’s apparent predilection for Netflix, he may well recall that the BBC comprised two TV channels, four radio stations and just a small handful of local radio stations. Fifty years on, the BBC licence fee is at the same level in real terms, despite the great local and national services it provides, which have helped young and old through the recent crisis."

Simon Fell MP raised the prospect of job cuts in BBC regional news, saying the cuts would "fall disproportionately" because there are so few people working on the programmes already.

John Whittingdale acknowledged that he remains concerned about the cuts targeted at regional political and current affairs and said: "any reduction in investigative journalism by the BBC is a matter of regret".

John Whittingdale also said the government were still looking at the suggestion of decriminalising the non-payment of the licence fee with an announcement soon. He also referred to other issues affecting the BBC at the moment:

"We are not yet at the point where we could consider moving to a subscription service, because a lot of people still rely on Freeview, which does not allow it. However, the way in which people consume television is changing so fast that it will increasingly lead to questions about the sustainability of the licence fee, and that will certainly be under consideration when we come to the next charter review."
"I am encouraged by the conversation that I had very recently with the incoming new director-general, Tim Davie, who recognises that there is scope to seek efficiency savings and is committed to looking across the whole range of BBC activities to see how that can be achieved."

Read the full transcript of the parliamentary debate online.

The NUJ’s 60+ council is calling on all union members to supports the BBC campaign and tell the government to ‘pick up the bill’ for free TV licences for over-75s. Please contact your local political representatives about it and find out their contact details on the They Work For You website.

Tags: , bbc, broadcasting, ofcom, licence fee, job cuts, parliament uk