Abolish the Telly Tax? Fat chance, say MPs at non-binding debate

125,000 people tried – and failed

Static poor reception of TV transmission. Photo by shutterstock

Britons simply don't understand that "public sector broadcasting" is a "good for all society", a Labour MP lamented during a Westminster Hall debate on TV licensing.

In spite of the dozen or so MPs who spoke during the 2.5-hour session, the debate managed to almost completely bypass the question of repealing the Telly Tax, as raised by tens of thousands of members of the public.

The Monday evening Westminster Hall debate came about after 125,000 signed a petition to abolish the TV Licence, which is a legal requirement for anyone who watches live telly or streams BBC iPlayer programmes.

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Helen Jones, Labour MP for Warrington North, spoke powerfully in defence of the "public sector broadcaster", saying: "If we do not want bland uniformity, an organisation that can encompass Radio 4 and Radio 6 Music and make programmes varying from EastEnders to The Sky at Night is an important thing to preserve... At 40p a day, which is what it works out at, I do not think it can be considered onerous."

This was then followed by lots of MPs boring on about which particular Beeb programmes they liked and disliked. It took Peter Heaton-Jones, a 17-year BBC veteran who is now the Conservative MP for North Devon, to steer the debate away from its initial hour and a half of BBC backslapping and onto its main point of abolishing (or not) the Telly Tax.

Addressing the petition's suggestion that BBC services "should be included through your provider for free", Heaton-Jones commented: "What it seems to suggest is that the petitioners believe that their provider – whether Sky, BT or Virgin – should somehow pay the licence fee, even though the petitioners still want to watch BBC services. Those services have to be paid for; I do not think that anyone will find a model that works whereby Sky, BT or Virgin will pay the BBC licence fee."

As he dismissed the German state broadcaster funding model (a broadcasting levy on each household, not dissimilar to our own Telly Tax) and the Finnish model (funded through "personal taxation"), Heaton-Jones reserved his biggest broadside for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's funding arrangements: "To me, that seems to be a one-way route to bias, and to too much political interference and meddling with the output of a public service broadcasting organisation."

Heaton-Jones described the Aussie model as a combination of direct taxation and "the ABC [going] cap in hand to the government" and begging for more cash. In contrast, he said, the British Telly Tax was the "least worst option".

"Although it is certainly an unusual way to fund a media producer of output these days," mused Conservative MP Huw Merriman, chairman of the all-party parliamentary group that defends the Beeb in Parliament, "the BBC does appear to have support for its model and, as [Jones] mentioned, increasing support."

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While he claimed to "understand the reasoning behind the petition", he summarily dismissed its concerns, saying: "It does not necessarily accord to much logic." Former BBC local presenter Mims Davies, now the Conservative MP for Eastleigh, chipped in to suggest that the Telly Tax could be made contingent on "how many people can fit on a sofa".

Gregory Campbell, DUP MP for East Londonderry, also tried taking on the cross-party consensus made up of former BBC employees, with no success. "An independent, impartial, fully accountable public service broadcaster sounds like a very good idea. Could we have one, please?"

Welsh Labour MP Kevin Brennan rather summed up the whole thing by reciting a modified version of the old Welsh hymn 'Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer' in tribute to the Beeb: "Songs of praises, songs of praises I will ever give to thee." ?

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