iconv(): Detected an illegal character in input string in /var/www/html/ukfree.tv/public/view/blogCaerusview.php at line 123 [8] BBC Licence fee and new Charter: the political reality | free and easy
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BBC Licence fee and new Charter: the political reality

Let's have an honest look at the current political situation and what it means for the BBC Charter renewal.

The Houses of Parliament, London  Photograph: Shutterstock
The Houses of Parliament, London Photograph: Shutterstock
published on UK Free TV

The ongoing operation of the BBC depends a very British constitutional device known as a Royal Charter. The eighth - and current one - expires at the end of the 31st December 2016, which is 590 days away (the 1947 one was extended for 6 months, the 1952 by two years and the 1964 one by three and then two years).

Royal Charters became law by being signed-off by the Monarch. Charters don't come from Parliament, but via the rather medieval bunch known as the Privy Council. You can see a list of the people (who are all addressed as the Right Honourable) in this group here -

Quite if a new charter will "emerge" from cross-party support or from a partisan angle is a good question. This is because of the rather unique situation in the Houses of Parliament.

A majority, just

Whilst there can be ongoing debate about the need to Reform the House of Lords and the need to have a system of democratic representation that bares relation to the number of the votes of the people, this is somewhat academic whilst we are looking at the renewal of the BBC Charter.

Under the current system, the Conservative Party have - just - a majority of the seats in the Commons, and this allows them to take full control of the levers of government for the next five years.

The Prime Minister has used his power as leader of the party with more than half of the seats to appoint John Wittingdale as Minister for Culture Media and Sport. The minister can use those power appointed to him to make the decsisions he see fit and appointments provided to him by various laws.

As Mr Wittingdale is already a member of the Privy Council he will also be able to take a new Charter to the Palace to be signed.

However, the BBC Charter is really a "head of state approved club rules list". The charter specifies the role of the current BBC Trust, so an executive decision to change some of this to Ofcom, may be possible.

However, the TV Licence is not part of the Charter, but part of the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949 section 2 (as amended by the 1998 Act). To change this will require an new law.

The problem with the numbers

Here is a graphic showing three sets of numbers.

In the first line is the House of Commons by seats. This is all the matters for the Lower House because the MPs assigned to ensuring that everyone in the party votes ("whips") only need a simple, single digit majority to get things passed. Such laws actually take five stages (first reading, second reading, committee state, report stage and third reading) before they are passed.

However, any bill can only be made law if it also passes the same set of rules in the House of Lords. And - as pointed out in alarming style by Quentin Letts in the Mail - the Blue Team don't have a majority there, they only have about a quarter.

The Parliament Acts

It is quite possible that you're thinking: "doesn't the Commons have the upper hand". And the answer is: sort of.

The Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 do assign "primacy" to the Commons, and the Lords may not delay a "Money Bill" for more than a month. However normal laws can be delayed by "two sessions over one year". However, the law has been used only four times since the end of WWII (War Crimes 1991, PR for EU Elections 1999, Age of Consent Equality 2000 and Hunting Act 2004). It seems inconceivable that a Conservative government elected on a campaign of "stability not chaos" would use the Act over and over again.

Another small matter is that the Parliament Act is only used to implement things in a manifesto. Which the Conservative one from 2015 says:

"We will: freeze** the BBC licence fee, to save you money.

We will: protect pensioner benefits including TV licences. We will maintain all the current pensioner benefits including TV licences for the next Parliament.

We will deliver a comprehensive review of the BBC Royal Charter, ensuring it delivers value for money for the licence fee payer, while maintaining a world class service and supporting our creative industries.

That is why we froze the BBC licence fee and will keep it frozen, pending Charter renewal.

And we will continue to 'topslice' the licence fee for digital infrastructure to support superfast broadband across the country."

We will use vital institutions like the BBC World Service to achieve the best for Britain."

** (Might be worth nothing that if the UK inflation rate turns negative "freeze the BBC licence fee" will in effect put it up. )

What of the Salisbury-Addison Convention?

In 1946 this convention was agreed informally by the House of Lords. It says that the Lords will not "oppose the second or third reading of any government legislation promised in its election manifesto"

This is the main reason that the Parliament Act is used only once in a blue moon. However, there is nothing holding the Lords to this, and the diagram shown above makes it quite clear that the current situation of the "majority party" now having only 36.9% of the vote the Lords may feel they have to represent the wider electorate.

In summary

The Rt Hon John Whittingdale, Minister for Culture Media and Sport has the support of the Prime Minister and can rely on his party of enact changes to the BBC governance and financing in the commons.

However, given the situation in the Lords and the lack of any commitment to another funding method in the manifesto means that any change will have to have support from the wider political spectrum. However this does exist in the Select Committee Report.

Given the short timescale, it could be that the whole thing gets kicked into the long grass with an extension to the current charter.

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