Licence fee freeze vote due

BBC Trust chairman warns that Tory proposal would curb "editorial independence"

MPs will today vote on a Conservative proposal to freeze the television licence fee for a year.

The party argues that the BBC can only maintain public support during the recession by doing more with less. Last month the licence fee rose by £3 to £142.50 as part of a six-year settlement.

But Sir Michael Lyons, the BBC Trust chairman, last night warned that freezing the licence fee, worth £3.6bn a year, was a “recipe for curbing the editorial independence of the BBC”.

The Conservatives are unlikely to win the vote but David Cameron has also raised the possibility of an annual licence free review.

Addressing the Royal Television Society, Lyons warned that such reform would make the BBC more vulnerable to political fluctuations. He said annual reviews would lead to a “shift in the balance of power away from an editorially independent BBC and towards the inevitably political agendas of those who would have the final say in these frequent decisions over funding”.

Lyons also criticised those who favour “top-slicing” the licence fee, arguing that it should not be used for “things that have nothing to do with the BBC's public purposes”.

The media regulator, Ofcom, has suggested that any surplus from the digital switchover fund could be used to aid Channel 4 or to fund the government’s universal broadband plan.

But Lyons pointed to research by Ofcom that suggested the public would like any surplus money returned to them.

“People would do well to remember that licence fee payers give us their money in good faith, believing it will be spent on BBC services and content,” he said. “We know what the public would like to ¬happen to any surplus … They'd like their money back.”

The BBC has already agreed to use part of the licence fee to help vulnerable groups with the digital switchover in 2012.

Lyons said the BBC would discuss any possible support for universal broadband with the government but stressed that this did not amount to a “blank cheque”.