Ed Vaizey: Government must will the means, as well as the ends, in supporting public service broadcasters

8 Apr

Lord Vaizey of Didcot is a Conservative peer and member of the Lords Communications and Digital Committee. He was the UK’s longest-serving Arts Minister (2010-16).

Like so many people, I’ve watched more TV in lockdown than I have done in years. And it’s not just because we haven’t been allowed out.

There is some brilliant stuff out there. None more so than that shown on the main public service broadcaster (PSB) channels – Line of Duty on the BBC, The Pembrokeshire Murders on ITV, It’s A Sin on Channel 4, and All Creatures Great and Small on Channel 5. Great programmes that huge audiences are watching and talking about.

These are a few of the brilliant programmes the PSBs make, and a tiny example that doesn’t do justice to how much they contribute to the country and its social fabric. Whether it’s the contribution they make to democracy through their news services, the social value they have bringing the country together through national moments and sporting events, or the significant economic contribution they make with their huge investments right across the UK.

To put this into context, the UK TV and film industry helped the country avoid recession in summer 2019. It can now help our economy recover in 2021 and beyond.

Since 2011 the creative industries have created three times more jobs than the UK-wide average. Prior to the pandemic, the creative sector was growing five times faster than the wider economy and contributing £111.7 billion to UK plc – more than the automotive, aerospace, life sciences, and oil and gas industries combined.

The Chancellor’s ‘Restart’ reinsurance scheme has helped the cameras keep rolling in TV and film, supporting 160 titles in four months, protecting almost 20,000 jobs and generating £680m of economic activity. This support has helped the screen industry bounce back and record the second highest production spend in history. The creative industries are central to the UK’s future economy, and the PSBs have proven their value as the lynchpin of this internationally successful sector.

The PSBs have also played a pivotal role during Covid. Sharing accurate, reliable news and information when there is so much disinformation. Promoting public health messaging and advice and working together to support the take-up of Covid vaccines amongst BAME communities. And bringing joy in a joyless time.

Independent, impartial public service broadcasting also showcases the Britain’s culture and promotes our values to the rest of the world. It tells uniquely British stories to international audiences. It commissions programmes exported widely across the world, enhancing the UK’s reputation, influence, and soft power abroad.

The economic, social, and cultural benefits PSBs deliver are not restricted to London’s metropolis. Channel 4 has new offices in Leeds, Bristol, and Glasgow, while the BBC is moving staff and programming outside the capital. PSBs support creative and production clusters in all four nations of our Union. They provide training opportunities for young people from different backgrounds. They reflect, represent, and serve the diverse communities of all the United Kingdom’s nations and regions.

But PSBs are let down by outdated laws. They operate in a hugely different market from when the regulation was set up in 2003 – pre-digital switchover, when Netflix was LoveFilm’s DVD delivery service. We need to act quickly if we want the PSB system to continue delivering for the country, and I urge all my colleagues to make the case to the Government.

This has been powerfully illustrated by the latest DCMS Select Committee report, which has concluded that there is a need for urgent reform. The Committee calls for draft legislation in this parliamentary session, before finding time to introduce and enact this legislation before the end of 2022.

The single most important thing Government can do is here is to update the prominence rules so PSB content remains widely available and discoverable across devices and platforms. The alternative, if we don’t act, is that eventually we will only have Netflix, Amazon and Disney+. Great services though they certainly are, they don’t reflect life in the UK particularly, there’s no news on them and you will search in vain for anything that reflects a particular nation or region of this country.

As Julian Knight, the Committee Chair, has said: “To enable public service broadcasters to compete in a digital world, Ministers must renew broadcasting laws that are nearly 20 years out of date. It’s a question of prominence – too often public service broadcasters lose out on dominant platforms…”

It is easy to take for granted the fundamental contribution the PSBs currently make to the UK’s culture, democracy and economy. The reality – as the Select Committee has so robustly set out – is that unless politicians act now to support them, they will increasingly be unable to deliver anything like the scale of social benefits that everyone in the UK currently enjoys.

By contrast, the Big Tech platforms are so large and powerful that they will be in an invincible, unassailable position in ten years’ time. As Parliamentarians and policymakers we must will the means necessary to support Britain’s public service broadcasters, as well as welcoming the positive end results they bring.

Ed Vaizey: Ending tax-free shopping for international visitors would be disastrous for the British economy

19 Oct

Lord Vaizey of Didcot is a Conservative Life peer who has sat under this title in the Lords since 10 September 2020. Prior to joining the Lords, he sat in the Commons as an MP, and was first elected in 2005.

I bow to no one in my admiration for Rishi Sunak.  Taking up the toughest of jobs at the toughest of times, he has played a blinder. Job Support Scheme, Bounce Back Loans, Eat Out to Help Out. Even though I’m not an MP any more, I know from talking to my former constituents how much this help has been needed and welcomed.

But with the Government having to make so many decisions so quickly, it’s unlikely everyone will be bang on the money. Even in normal times (remember those?) we occasionally saw unintended consequences.

I’m afraid to say that the Treasury decision to end tax-free shopping for international visitors at the end of December is one of those decisions. At the moment, visitors can reclaim the VAT on stuff they buy here. From January, this will be stopped.

I can see why the Treasury thought it was a clever wheeze. They think it will only affect a small group of very wealthy people. If it hits anywhere, it will hit Bond Street and Bicester village – not exactly marginal vote territory.

But there’s a problem. These wealthy visitors don’t just shop – they eat out, they go to museums and the theatre, stay in hotels. They also travel outside London, visiting places like York and the Lake District.

Also, the posh stuff they buy is often actually made here. Yes folks, those Burberry suits are made in Yorkshire. And those French Chanel jumpers are actually made in Scotland. Which is why we are now in the weird position of the SNP Finance Minister calling out a Tory Chancellor for not backing British business.

The Treasury assumptions, which I have seen, act as if the vast majority of visitors will still come, so the Treasury will make a net gain from them paying VAT. But why should they when we will be the only country in Europe not offering VAT-free shopping?

As a result of this decision, they are likely to go to Paris, Milan or any other European city instead of London. In fact, a recent poll of these visitors showed that if the UK ends tax-free shopping 93 per cent would not buy goods here and 60 per cent wouldn’t even bother visiting post the pandemic. Maybe that’s why the French are giving them a nudge by lowering their VAT free threshold the day after the Treasury took the decision.

It doesn’t take many visitors to change their plans. 13 per cent of all-tax free shoppers account for 44 per cent of all tax-free sales. All it takes is for a small proportion of high-spending international tourists to go elsewhere before the impact is felt. The end result is an increase in job losses.

Retailers, hoteliers and airport chiefs from all over the country have warned that scrapping tax-free shopping for international tourists has put 70,000 jobs in jeopardy. The decision is a big blow to the regions. Tax-free shopping supports 1,800 jobs in Edinburgh and 1,200 jobs in Manchester alone, and the money spent in London stores helps high streets throughout the UK.

Most flights from the UK’s regional airports are to and from Europe. Stores in Birmingham and Manchester had hoped to double sales to EU visitors on the understanding that tax-free shopping would be extended to EU countries once we’d left the bloc. Now the likes of Selfridges and Marks & Spencer are warning the impact it will have on jobs across the country instead. This is not what those workers voted for.

If allowed to go ahead, the decision to end tax-free shopping for international visitors will put Global Britain at a competitive disadvantage and result in thousands of jobs losses. I hope our pragmatic Chancellor will think again.