MPs criticise BBC chief over ‘flawed’ negotiations on free TV licences for over-75s

Culture committee report criticises ‘poor management, leadership and governance at the BBC’

Sherna Noah
Friday 11 October 2019 06:16
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The BBC announced in June that free TV licences for over-75s would be scrapped
The BBC announced in June that free TV licences for over-75s would be scrapped

MPs have criticised BBC chief Lord Tony Hall for his handling of negotiations on the TV licence fee for over-75s.

The BBC agreed to take on responsibility for funding the scheme as part of the charter agreement hammered out in 2015.

The House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee blamed both sides for the secret nature of the negotiations.

While the BBC complained about the government approach, MPs “found little evidence of transparency in the corporation’s decision-making either”.

It was a “flawed process on all sides that gave no opportunity for consultation with licence fee payers”, their report said.

MPs said that “the criticism that funding negotiations should not have happened ‘behind closed doors’ applies as much to the BBC as it does to the government”. They said minutes for the meetings should have been properly recorded but are incomplete.

The BBC could have acted earlier to communicate the likelihood that they would not be able to fund a full licence fee concession for people over 75 from 2020, they said. But it was wrong of the then government to seek “to ‘bounce’ the BBC into accepting a deal”.

More generally, the MPs’ report criticises “poor management, leadership and governance at the BBC”.

It said the problems surrounding the use of personal service companies – its arrangements with its freelancers, including presenters – may have arisen from poor management.

“Future issues may emerge as a result of the same management and governance approach,” the report said.

On the gender pay gap, the MPs said “there is still a long way to go at the BBC”, even though the broadcaster is continuing to take steps to resolve the issues.

Criticising BBC director-general Lord Hall, the report says he should have sought “the formal agreement of the (now defunct) Executive Board before recommending (the deal) to the BBC Trust”.

MPs said that free BBC TV licences should be restored for all over-75s. Committee chair Damian Collins said the BBC had “put itself” in an “invidious position” as an “administrator” of welfare benefits.

He said: “It agreed to fund a pensioner benefit that it couldn’t afford and, as a result, false reassurances were given to the over-75s that their free licence fees would be maintained.

“The BBC and the government must reach an agreement to allow the funding of free licence fees for the over-75s to continue after 2020.

”The BBC finds itself here as the result of a deal done behind closed doors that allowed no transparency for licence fee payers.

“Detailed minutes which would have shone a light on the crucial decision-making process are absent or incomplete which is a matter of great regret.”

The report also says that overall finances of the BBC paint a “disturbing picture” – with pressure on the corporation’s budgets likely to get worse.

Mr Collins said: “We are seeing clear evidence that the funding model of the BBC will become unsustainable without substantial increases in commercial revenue from BBC Studios and new subscription on demand viewing services like BritBox.”

Licence fee negotiations for 2021 should be “conducted in a wholly different way”, MPs said.

The report said the “BBC could have acted earlier to communicate the likelihood that they would not be able to fund a full licence fee concession for people over 75 from 2020.”

The “handling of the announcement has served to erode public confidence in the way that the BBC spends its money”, it said.

PA

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