The BBC licence fee will be frozen for the next two years, the culture secretary has said.
The annual payment, which normally changes on 1 April each year, is to be kept at the current rate of £159 until April 2024. It will rise in line with inflation for the four years after that.
Nadine Dorries confirmed the news to the House of Commons on Monday. She earlier indicated she wanted to find a new funding model for the BBC after the current licence fee funding deal expires in 2027.
She wrote on Twitter: “This licence fee announcement will be the last.
“The days of the elderly being threatened with prison sentences and bailiffs knocking on doors are over.
“Time now to discuss and debate new ways of funding, supporting and selling great British content.”
The licence fee is set by the Government, which announced in 2016 that it would rise in line with inflation for five years from 1 April 2017.
The BBC has previously come under fire over the abolition of free TV licences for all over-75s, with a grace period on payment because of the Covid-19 pandemic having ended on 31 July.
Only those who receive pension credit do not have to pay the annual sum.
The BBC hit back at the news, putting out a statement saying: “A freeze in the first two years of this settlement means the BBC will now have to absorb inflation. That is disappointing – not just for licence fee payers, but also for the cultural industries who rely on the BBC for the important work they do across the UK. The BBC’s income for UK services is already 30% lower in real terms than it was ten years ago.
“We will set out the implications of the settlement later, before the end of the financial year, but it will necessitate tougher choices which will impact licence fee payers.”
‘Grown-up conversation’ needed
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said the BBC is “something we need to make sure we continue to support and protect”.
Speaking to Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday morning, the Cabinet minister said it is “absolutely right to celebrate what the BBC does globally, the soft power behind the BBC is something that we need to make sure we continue to support and protect”.
And he said negotiations between Dorries and the broadcaster are “ongoing”.
“The Secretary of State will make a statement on that,” he said.
“I can tell you, because [BBC director-general] Tim Davie came to see me when I got the job of Secretary of State for Education, the work we do… that the BBC does on education is incredibly valuable.
“But we also have to recognise that, actually, the way people consume media today is very different to the way they did five years ago, and part of that is a proper grown-up conversation as to how the BBC is funded beyond this settlement.”
Shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell said the Government is signalling “the end of the BBC as we know it” in a “pathetic” attempt to distract from Boris Johnson’s difficulties over Downing Street parties.
She said the £159 licence fee is “incredibly cheap” and criticised Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries for making an announcement on Twitter as part of a Tory Government plan to offer “red meat for their backbenchers”.
“We’ve just got to recognise what it is that we are getting for that payment, which is actually incredibly cheap, even when you compare it to many of the commercial competitors out there, what you get as value, because we all pay in a small amount, what the BBC is able to do,” Powell told Times Radio.
“Let’s not get away from the fact that this so-called announcement, which was on Twitter yesterday, which is effectively the end of the BBC as we know it, a huge policy announcement, is nothing more than a really obvious, pathetic distraction from a Prime Minister and a Government who has run out of road and whose leadership is hanging by a thread.”
She acknowledged that the licence fee is not a perfect solution – “you would not necessarily start with it if we didn’t have it now” – but countries around the world are looking at the “mix of models that we have in this country” for funding broadcasting. She added that Dorries’s apparent plans amount to “cultural vandalism”.
‘You don’t like its reporting’
Some critics of Dorries’s plan suggested the BBC was being punished for recent reporting on controversies hurting the Prime Minister, such as a succession of lockdown-breaking parties held at Downing Street.
The writer, producer and director Armando Iannucci said on Twitter: “I think it’s more likely to be your [Dorries’s] last rather than the BBC’s.
“First you come for Channel 4 because you don’t like its reporting of events. Now you come for the BBC because you don’t like its reporting of events.
“Have you ever considered whether it’s the events themselves that are the problem?”
BBC Breakfast host Dan Walker told his Twitter followers: “I am well aware that the BBC makes mistakes and needs to change, but the media landscape would be much poorer without it. Those three letters are trusted and respected around the world.”
Earlier this month former Culture Secretary John Whittingdale suggested the BBC could be funded through a combination of a government grant for news and children’s content, and a subscription for everything else as an optional extra. The National Union of Journalists slammed his proposal as “extremely dangerous”.
NUJ assistant general secretary Seamus Dooley said of the latest threat that the “naked attempt to damage BBC must be resisted. Secure funding is key to survival of independent BBC. Worrying for journalism and democracy.”
Dooley added: “The value of public service broadcasting has been demonstrated over [the] past two years. The future of BBC should not be imperilled by populism or political expediency.”
Picture: PA Wire/Victoria Jones