Senior Tory MP: TV licence fee is less fair than poll tax

John Whittingdale, chairman of a Commons committee reviewing the role of the BBC, told a Bafta audience that despite a defence of the £145.50 a year levy by BBC bosses "at the end of the day it won’t be the Trust and it won’t be the Director General who decides"

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A senior Tory MP charged with deciding the fate of the TV licence fee has slapped down the new head of the BBC Trust.

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John Whittingdale the chairman of a Commons committee currently reviewing the role of the BBC said that he was “disappointed” with Rona Fairhead over her comments that the licence fee was “not a problem that needs to be fixed”.

“That is the BBC mindset,” Whittingdale told a Bafta audience in London tonight. “But at the end of the day it won’t be the Trust and it won’t be the Director General who decides.”

Whittingdale reaffirmed his previous view that in the long term the licence fee is unsustainable. But he suggested its demise won’t be as soon as some feared.

“I don’t think there is any serious possibility of the licence fee going in the next charter renewal (2016).  When I say it’s unsustainable I am talking about over 20-50 years.”

He went on to describe the licence fee as worse than the poll tax.

“With the poll tax if you were on very low income you got a considerable subsidy. The BBC licence fee has no means-tested assistance whatsoever. It doesn’t matter how poor you are you still have to pay £145.50 and go to prison if you don’t pay it and a lot of people go to prison every year because they can’t afford to pay the fines.”

Later during the Question Time style debate Whittingdale said that he was concerned by Channel 4 plans to make an immigration spinoff of its controversial series Benefits Street.

Whittingdale said he didn’t like Benefits Street, describing it as “a bit exploitative”.

Asked for his reaction to the news that the channel is filming an Immigration Street sequel in Southampton he replied: “Based on Benefits Street I am quite worried.”

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He defended, though, the channel’s right to make risky programmmes. “Immigration and welfare are two of the top issues on the political agenda and it is right Channel 4 should raise them. The trouble is you can’t take risks without sometimes getting it wrong.”