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TV Licences: Over-75s

Volume 653: debated on Thursday 31 January 2019

2. If he will make it his policy to maintain free TV licences for people over the age of 75 after the end of the current scheme in 2020. (908927)

6. If he will make it his policy to maintain the provision of free TV licences for people aged 75 and over after the current scheme expires in 2020. (908931)

13. If he will make it his policy to maintain the provision of free TV licences for people aged 75 and over after the current scheme expires in 2020. (908942)

Many older people across the country value television as a way to stay connected with the world. That is why we have guaranteed the over-75s concession until June 2020, at which point the responsibility for the concession will transfer to the BBC. After that, it is for the BBC to decide on the future of the concession, but we have made it clear that we would want and expect it to continue with it.

This obligation would cost the BBC three quarters of a billion pounds, rising to £1 billion by the end of the decade. That equates to one fifth of the BBC budget, more than its entire radio budget and equivalent to its entire spend on drama, entertainment, comedy and sport programming. Scottish sport and minority sports need more coverage, not less. Are Age UK and BECTU—the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union—not correct? This is an age-related benefit and as such it should remain the responsibility of this Government.

Of course, as the hon. Gentleman will know, the discussions with the BBC about the transfer of this responsibility took place in 2015, at which point the BBC agreed to take on this responsibility. He will know that the licence fee income continues to increase for the BBC and he will know that this House passed legislation in 2017 to effect the transfer, so the BBC has understood throughout what the level of commitment would be and it has agreed to undertake it.

One suggestion in the consultation is that the TV licence is means-tested and linked to pension credit, yet in my constituency 1,211 over-75s do not claim the pension credits to which they are entitled so would miss out on the TV licence if it were to be linked. Does the Minister agree that that option is totally unworkable and that it is wrong of his Government to lay the burden of their own manifesto promise at the door of the BBC?

On the hon. Lady’s last point, I have laid out how that has happened. On the consultation, as she points out the BBC has set out many options. Not all of them will find favour. I am sure that she and others will want to submit their own responses to the consultation to underline the concerns she has expressed. It is right that the BBC is consulting. It is right that it is doing so in an open way. It must consider carefully all the views it receives before deciding its next moves.

Maintaining free TV licences for over-75s until 2022 was a Tory manifesto promise, but the Government had already outsourced that responsibility to the BBC. Why did they make a promise that they knew they could not keep?

As I have set out, we expect the BBC to honour that commitment. We made it clear that we expected the BBC to take on responsibility for that concession, and it agreed to do so. That was clear to all in 2015. While the hon. Gentleman is on the subject of promises, perhaps he or one of his colleagues can explain what Labour’s view on this is. Labour Members criticise us for passing that commitment on to the BBC. Will the Labour party in government take it back? If so, how will it pay for it?

With the exception of God’s grace, nothing should be free. It distorts markets and misallocates resources, doesn’t it?

As ever, I admire my right hon. Friend’s ideological purity. It is important that we make sure the BBC continues to provide an excellent service to all those who watch television. That is what it is committed to doing, and it has agreed to take over responsibility for a very specific concession. It is one of many concessions, of course; the others remain entirely unaffected.

As the Secretary of State will know, many across Torbay enjoy BBC services such as BBC Radio Devon and the BBC “Spotlight” evening news. Does he agree that very few people over 75 understand that the BBC did not take the chance to look carefully at some of its costs—particularly for very high-value entertainment and talent—rather than cut that benefit?

I understand my hon. Friend’s point. It is of course important that the BBC continues to be accountable to the public for the money it spends, and particularly for the money it spends on talent. As he will recognise, we are able to discuss that in an informed way because the Government have brought about transparency on that point so we can see what those people are paid.

The Secretary of State is not going to get away with devolving the blame for his cuts. More than 2 million over-75-year-olds live alone, and the Campaign to End Loneliness reports that four in 10 of them say that television is their main source of company. The last Conservative manifesto promised to keep TV licences, and the Government have committed to ending loneliness with a loneliness strategy. Will the Secretary of State pledge now that no one over 75 living alone will lose their free TV licence?

The hon. Gentleman is right to focus on loneliness. He will know that the Government have produced not only a strategy but funding to follow through on the recommendations of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. That money is being spent to good effect. We want to make sure people continue to have access to all methods of support to deal with loneliness. I make the point again: it is all very well the Labour party’s criticising this move, but unless that is more than hot air it will have to explain whether it intends to reverse this policy. If it does not, people will suspect that it is just making further promises it has no intention of keeping.

With your indulgence, Mr Speaker, I would like to put on the record the condolences and sympathy of everybody in this House for the family of Molly Russell. Her untimely death stands as a stark reminder of the dangers of online self-harm posts. I hope the Secretary of State will join me in offering the family our condolences and in doing everything we can to tackle those harmful posts.

Is it not the case that the Secretary of State’s predecessor, the previous Chancellor and the previous Secretary of State for Department for Culture, Media and Sport held the BBC to ransom over this issue, and that he has been left to clean up this mess? He should stick to his manifesto commitment to maintain pensioner benefits, including the TV licence, so elderly constituents in my Livingston constituency and across the UK can continue to enjoy it.

First, I endorse what the hon. Lady has said about the family of Molly Russell, and I know the whole House will offer strong condolences for her family. As the hon. Lady knows, not only is this a subject of considerable interest to the Government on a number of fronts, but we will of course discuss it later on this morning, I am sure.

On the TV licence, let me first point out again that this Government have an exceptionally proud record on benefits for pensioners. We have made considerable provision for the increase in the state pension, a record that compares extremely favourably with that of the previous Labour Government. But in relation to this particular transition from the Government to the BBC for responsibility for this concession, I say again that the BBC understood exactly what the consequences of this change would be, and of course at the time professed, through the director-general and others, satisfaction with the charter review and funding settlement. It is a little late in the day for everyone suddenly to wake up to this issue and claim that it will have terrible consequences; the consequences have been clear.