A Tory party motion to freeze the BBC television licence fee failed by 178 votes in the Commons last night.
Voting was 334 to 156 against the move, as shadow media secretary Jeremy Hunt demanded the BBC should waive this year’s three per cent licence fee rise to help hard-pressed viewers.
He said ordinary people and rival broadcasters were struggling financially at a time when the BBC was receiving an inflation-busting rise in revenue.
The price of a colour TV licence rose from £139.50 to £142.50 in April as part of a six-year settlement agreed in 2007, since when the economic conditions in the country had “changed beyond recognition”, Hunt told parliament.
He said there needed to be sensible balance between the revenue commercial broadcasters were able to raise and the BBC.
“Many will ask if that is possible if there is a £1bn gap between state-funded broadcasters and the rest,” he said.
John Whittingdale, Tory chairman of the culture, media and sport select committee, said the BBC had been “enjoying a perpetual increase year on year at a time when the rest of the media sector is facing the worst crisis for 50 years”.
He warned: “The sheer disparity between the amount of money available to commercial media against the BBC has now become absolutely enormous and it is having a distorting effect within the market.”
Culture secretary Andy Burnham said he “profoundly disagreed” with the Tory call, which challenged “the very basis on which the BBC has been funded over decades”.
He said: “We do need to take care not to damage or destabilise one of the great British institutions respected and revered around the world.”
Burnham said multi-year funding deals were important – “not just for the planning stability they bring but because they protect editorial independence and act as a bulwark against undue political inference”.
He warned: “Make no mistake – the uncertainty this would create would be disastrous for the BBC and ultimately for licence fee payers.
“To instigate annual funding settlements would fundamentally alter its character, independence and impartiality, its relationship to Parliament and its role in public life.”
On Tuesday night, BBC Trust chairman Sir Michael Lyons said the Tory proposal, which would break the current agreement, was a “recipe for curbing the editorial independence of the BBC”.
In the Commons, Liberal Democrat spokesman Don Foster said the opposition move was “dangerous” and undermined the independence of the BBC. He said the fixed funding settlement was “critical”.
“Voting against this order and for the Tory proposal would set a dangerous precedent whereby the licence fee settlement could be redrawn each year – year on year, as the Tory leader has said, according to political will,” he said.
“It would be a fundamental and undesirable shift in the relationship between the BBC and parliament.”
Responding to the vote against the motion afterwards, Foster said in a statement: “‘The Tories’ efforts to undermine the licence fee were little more than a cheap gimmick.
“While the BBC is far from perfect, most people accept that British broadcasting is among the best in the world.
“The licence fee should not be used as a political football in this way as it seriously undermines the independence of the BBC.
“Many people will be left thinking the Conservatives can’t be trusted to keep Auntie safe.”