On 29 June 2015, Conservative MP Peter Bone presented the BBC Privatisation Bill to the House of Commons for its first reading. The proposed Bill makes provision for the privatisation of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) by providing shares in the BBC to all licence fee payers. The Bill was supported by Conservative MPs Philip Hollobone, Philip Davies, Christopher Chope and Scott Mann.
The BBC transitioned from a private company to a public service corporation in 1926. Initial speculation on privatisation plans arose in 1995 when an internal document written by BBC chiefs was accidently passed to the People newspaper. The document showed that privatisation options were being considered but these plans were ultimately not pursued.
The current Bill follows a period of discussion over the impact of the television licence fee system that currently funds the Corporation. Failure to pay the licence fee can result in a fine or imprisonment. Reports have shown that up to 700 hearings per day in English courts are for non-payment of the licence fee, accounting for around one in ten court cases heard. In February this year (as part of the Deregulation Bill) it was proposed that a system of subscriptions, rather than a licence fee, would save on the time and money spent chasing perpetrators. Conservative peer Lord Grade was a vocal opponent of such a move stating that ‘a subscription model … would completely undermine the whole concept of public service broadcasting’. However, concerns over the possible loss of revenue for the Corporation following a change in funding prevailed as the House of Lords narrowly voted for non-payment of the fee to remain a criminal offence, despite the Government wishing to decriminalise it.
The new Bill abandons the idea of a replacement subscription model and instead proposes that licence fee payers would become shareholders in the Corporation. A re-evaluation of the current compulsory system will therefore be at the heart of the draft Bill.
At present the BBC is required to be neutral by its charter. Discussions on the impact on neutrality that privatisation could have will inevitably result from the proposal, particularly given Lord Grade’s argument above and the cultural importance many attach to impartial broadcasting.
The BBC Privatisation Bill is in very early stages. The Bill will be read for a second time on 26 February 2016, when an initial debate is also likely to occur. A first draft of the Bill will be printed closer to this date.