I beg to move,
That this House calls on the Government to honour the Conservative party’s 2017 manifesto promise to maintain free TV licences for the over-75s for the duration of this Parliament by ensuring sufficient funding to do so and, should the BBC propose changes to the concession, to ensure that the proposed changes are subject to parliamentary consent.
The motion is in the name of the Leader of the Opposition, me and others, including the leader of the Liberal Democrats and the leader of the SNP.
The debate is about keeping a promise that the Conservative party made on page 66 of its election manifesto just two years ago. In case the Minister has not got a copy, I have managed to find a rare one, which was not shredded, in the Library. It makes for interesting reading. It is called “Forward Together” and claims to be a “Plan for a Stronger Britain and a Prosperous Future”. On page 66, it states:
“We will maintain all other pensioner benefits, including free bus passes, eye tests, prescriptions and TV licences, for the duration of this Parliament.”
No equivocation, no ambiguity—the Conservative party promised to maintain free TV licences for the duration of this Parliament. Yet we are here today because that promise lies in tatters: 4.5 million older people in receipt of free TV licences could be betrayed unless the Government act.
For many older people, their free TV licence staves off poverty, isolation and loneliness all in one go.
My hon. Friend will recall that last week I asked the Prime Minister a question about TV licences and bus passes and got an extremely vague answer. More importantly, when that manifesto was drawn up, the Prime Minister and the Government already knew that they had handed over responsibility to the BBC. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a deception on pensioners, but that more important is the question of the triple lock for pensioners, which cannot be debated today?
My hon. Friend is a doughty campaigner for pensioners not just in Coventry but throughout the country. Last week, he exposed the ambiguity in the Government’s position. Yet the Government made a promise in their manifesto—the Prime Minister’s own manifesto; we are told that not many Front Benchers got to see it in advance of publication.
If the concession for over-75s ends, more than 5,000 households in Slough could lose their TV licences. As my hon. Friend has pointed out, the 2017 Conservative party manifesto promised to maintain free TV licences for the over-75s until 2022, but the Government have now reneged on their promise and passed the buck to the BBC.
Loneliness is an increasing problem for millions in our country, with four out of 10 people saying that television is their main source of company. Does my hon. Friend agree that cutting free TV licences will merely exacerbate the national loneliness crisis?
The Government claim to care about loneliness, but the issue of TV licences is a significant worry for my over-75 population. It is within the Government’s gift to say that they will protect the free TV licence for over-75s. Does my hon. Friend agree that they should end their prevarication and do that today?
The Government are reneging not on a two-year pledge but on a 22-year pledge. When the Bill that introduced free TV licences went through the House of Commons, the then Opposition spokesman—Peter Ainsworth, Member for East Surrey—said:
“The Government will no doubt be interested to know whether the Opposition support the granting of free television licences to those over 75. In anticipation of that question, let me say at the outset that of course we give an enthusiastic welcome to any sensible measure that alleviates the burden of the licence fee on the elderly.”—[Official Report, 10 April 2000; Vol. 348, c. 122.]
It is a 22-year rip-up by the Government, not a two-year one.
This pattern is becoming more and more prevalent in the Government. They are outsourcing responsibility for decisions, including council cuts and police cuts, to other institutions. Is that not indicative of a lack of leadership on the Government Benches?
Almost 7,000 people in my area would lose the concession, were it to go. Does my hon. Friend agree that the over £1 million of costs to pensioners would take money out of already poor pockets? It is thus a double-whammy if the Government do not stick to their manifesto commitment.
My hon. Friend is being extremely generous in giving way. He mentions the impact on the vulnerable. My constituent Elizabeth Tombling, who is 95 years old, says that her TV licence is one of the few bits of pleasure she has in her old age, particularly as she is housebound. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is unfair on her?
The great pensioner champion, Jack Jones, once made a speech in which he said that one in five of the over-70s never sees anyone from one week to the next; the television is their friend. Jack thought that a generation of progress would never be reversed. Does my hon. Friend agree that those great pioneers of the pensioners movement would be turning in their graves at the thought that the free TV licence might be taken away from them?
What a great campaigner Jack Jones was. I thank my hon. Friend for raising his contribution. His legacy is the National Pensioners Convention, which is solidly against these proposals. I am sure we will talk about it later in the debate.
That is why the Government’s refusal to honour their manifesto pledge and save free TV licences is so cruel. My co-signatories on this motion show the degree of cross-party consensus on this matter. We are calling on the Government to rethink and change course urgently. The threat to TV licences is part and parcel of the Conservative austerity agenda, which has weakened our social fabric and impacted the most vulnerable in our communities. Our social contract, whereby people who work hard all their lives are afforded comfort in old age, is being slowly but certainly unpicked. Free TV licences are a small but important part of that social contract. Taking them away will force older people into poverty and leave many more feeling isolated and alone. Rather than standing by their manifesto promise and standing up for dignity and comfort in old age, the Government are taking it away.
Now a little history. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson) said, the TV licence concession for over-75s was introduced just over 20 years ago by the Labour Government as part of a robust package of reforms to support our pensioners and boost their quality of life. The universal benefit was a result of a long campaign to show our oldest pensioners society’s appreciation. Some 4.5 million people over the age of 75 continue to benefit from free TV licences today. Although Labour did not commit explicitly in our last manifesto to continue that policy, our commitment was of course implicit. In case there is any misunderstanding among Ministers, let me be clear. If the Government fall before the natural end of the Parliament in 2022, Labour will honour the Conservative party manifesto pledge to protect TV licences until then.
Despite their manifesto promise of 2017, the Government had already set the stage for the concession to be cut, as my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) said. In 2015, they outsourced the responsibility for the TV licence concession on to the BBC as part of the charter renewal process.
I am interested that the hon. Gentleman is saying that a Labour Government coming to power before 2020 would restore the TV licence. Is he saying that a future Labour Government after 2020 will maintain the free TV licence for over-75s at a cost that, next year, will already have reached £745 million?
My answer to the right hon. Gentleman is a complicated one. We are committed to 2022. I do not write or decide our manifesto. He knows I cannot do that. Our commitment to pensioners and protecting their benefits will be very clear. It is highly likely that we will be supporting pensioners after 2022, but I cannot give that commitment today. I will certainly make sure we do not outsource welfare policy to a public broadcaster.
The Government’s outsourcing means that, as of 2020, the BBC will be fully responsible for deciding who gets a free TV licence, and for funding that concession. It is manifestly unfair. Labour opposed that at the time, and our position has not changed—first, because passing responsibility for free TV licences to the BBC is outsourcing an important social policy. The BBC makes some of the best TV content in the world, but it is not a political body—it is not an arm of the Department for Work and Pensions—and nor should it be. It is not elected, and nor should it be.
Secondly, we opposed the move because the Government deliberately saddled our national broadcaster with a cost that could lead to many skilled job losses.
The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way. Is there not a more important point, which is that the cost that the public sector broadcaster—a major creative industry employer—is being saddled with from having to pay for free TV licence could prevent it from growing employment, particularly for young people? They find it difficult to find work in traditional industries, and the creative industries pick that up.
On giving a welfare policy to the BBC, a lot of footballing metaphors have been used in the past 24 hours, after Liverpool’s glorious result against Barcelona last night, but does my hon. Friend agree that in policy terms this is the equivalent of a hospital pass?
It certainly is for this Minister, who happens to be answering today. But it is not as if she, or other Front Benchers, did not have notice, because during the passage of the Bill that enabled this my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) made that very point.
My hon. Friend said earlier that the BBC makes some of the best programming in the world, and we would all want to agree with that, but the difficulty is that if the BBC loses such a large chunk of its budget, it will be more difficult for it to do this in the future. We would lose our status in the world as one of the greatest broadcasting production houses in the world and other people, often American players, would be able to take up the British market. Is this not a gross dereliction of patriotic duty?
I think it is, and my hon. Friend makes a good point. I would answer more fully, but I am already running over time.
Keeping TV licences free for all over-75s would require unprecedented cuts to the BBC’s spending on broadcasting and content. This is political cowardice: if the Government want to cut free TV licences for over-75s, they should say so—they should include it in the manifesto and let the public decide on the policy. If the Government want to cut the BBC’s budget by a fifth, they should say so—they should put it in the manifesto and let the public have their say at the ballot box.
The BBC has consulted on a range of options, from means testing, which would still see 3 million households lose out, to raising the qualifying age to 80, which would see 1.5 million households lose their free licence. The conclusions of that consultation are still outstanding, but one thing is clear: if these cuts go ahead in any of the suggested forms, the responsibility will lie firmly at the Government’s door. Passing the buck to the BBC was not a decision made in the national interest, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has said, or for the benefit of older people; it was designed to give the Government political cover to cut a popular policy. This is austerity by stealth. The Conservative party made a commitment to the older people of this country, so now the Government should act and take both the policy and the financial responsibility for funding free TV licences for over-75s back in-house—the two should not be separated.
The BBC has been put in an impossible position by this Government, being asked either to make swingeing cuts to the programmes we all know and love or to take free TV away from older people. That is why when the National Pensioners Convention gathered to protest against scrapping the concession earlier this year, they did not convene outside Broadcasting House, but met outside the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Those protestors know the cost of losing free TV licences.
Age UK’s analysis shows that scrapping the concession completely could push more than 50,000 pensioners below the poverty line. For many, losing £154.50 from their pensions is a frightening prospect and it could mean being forced to choose between heating, eating or having a TV at home. This debate over free TV licences is an indicator of the Government’s broader policies for pensioners. For nine years, Tory austerity has saved money on the back of our most vulnerable citizens. By outsourcing responsibility for paying for TV licences, this Government will be cutting £745 million in 2021-22. That is in addition to the £220 million the Government will be saving in the same year through changes to pension credit. That is nearly a billion pounds of cuts the Government are making, coming directly out of the pockets of pensioners.
My hon. Friend is making an important point about how this will hit the most vulnerable and needy of our older people. Joanne, a 78-year-old disabled woman from my constituency, wrote to me to say:
“I worked as a teacher for more than 30 years. I have never claimed benefit of any kind until I became disabled…When I was able I went to the theatre, cinema…etc…Now my only source of entertainment is reading…and TV. To take away the free licence I feel, given what we have put into the country…is mean, petty and very unfair.”
Her wellbeing would be affected by not having TV, as would that of thousands of others. It is estimated that almost 6,000 people would be affected in my constituency. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is outrageous and that we should be working in the opposite direction, in order to help our older people?
Please tell Joanne that we are on her side and that we will be pressing the Government to honour their promises to her and the hundreds of thousands of other pensioners.
The number of pensioners living in poverty is rising—it is 1.9 million today, but it is forecast to pass 2 million by 2020. That is to this Government’s shame. Their austerity agenda asks us to focus on the numbers, but we must not forget the human reality of what life is like for our oldest citizens. Social isolation is the scourge that is on the rise. New research from Age UK shows that half of the 4.5 million over-75s in the UK do not live with a partner, with two thirds having a long-standing illness that means they find it difficult to get out and about. The most heartbreaking of these new statistics is the fact that 400,000 people aged over 75 go a week without meeting up with or speaking on the phone to friends or family. Just one in nine over-75s say that they are not lonely.
I am proud to say that we are very supportive of the motion. The hon. Gentleman has outlined the characteristics of many people in the over-75 group. Despite all the things he has mentioned, these are the people who do get out to vote. What I am hearing from the many who have contacted me is that they want this House of Commons to get an opportunity to vote on the removal of this and for it not to be done in the way that is proposed.
The hon. Lady makes an important point, and I am very grateful that she has aligned her party to the sentiments in this motion—it is very important.
For millions of these people, television is a lifeline. Four in 10 older people say that TV is their main source of company, and this Government are about to take that away from them. The experiences of older people speak for themselves. A 94-year-old widower who is living by himself, with diabetes and dementia, told us:
“I cannot leave the house and rely on the television for company and entertainment.”
Another pensioner told us:
“I am on a small pension and if it came to a choice between food and TV, I would lose out and become isolated and alone. TV keeps me company.”
The truth is you cannot means test for social isolation; loneliness can affect anyone, anywhere. Any change to the current free licences will cause harm.
In conclusion, we know that the Minister will now give a speech saying this is all the BBC’s responsibility and it is up to the BBC to decide the fate of the free TV licence. We do not agree. We are not fooled by the Government’s attempts to offload and obfuscate their own responsibility. This is austerity by the back door. The public know that and pensioners know that. At the heart of this debate today is the question of what a manifesto promise means. I have always regarded manifesto commitments as one of the most basic and important of political pledges, not something that can be merely cast aside. Today, I urge the Minister to stand by that promise made by her party two years ago. She knows the parliamentary arithmetic; if she and the Member behind her tell the Government Front-Bench team they want to honour that promise, they would do so. So I urge every Conservative MP not to betray their promise to voters, not to betray the word they gave them at the 2017 general election. I commend this motion to the House.
I thank the shadow Secretary of State for securing this important debate on the over-75 licence concession.
I wish to take a moment to recognise the hugely important role that the BBC plays in our national debate. As the shadow Secretary of State said so eloquently, as a constant companion for many people—especially older people—throughout the country, the BBC is indeed one of the UK’s most treasured institutions and is a fundamental part of the country’s social and economic fabric. Members will recognise that the BBC is a world-class broadcaster that produces a very high standard of television, radio and online content that is unparalleled in quality.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, even if I am a bit flummoxed as to quite whether she was giving way to me. I agree with what she has said about the BBC, so does she think it is right that 20% and rising of the BBC’s resource should in effect go towards fulfilling a Government policy on social security? It is just going to impair the BBC’s ability to make classic programmes.
It is important to see the decision that was made in the wider context of the licence fee agreement that was settled in 2015. It included several plus-points for the BBC that it had not had before—I shall come to the detail of them shortly—and it raised the BBC’s income and for the first time put that income on a sustainable footing over a five-year period. In that context, the Government at the time took a reasonable position.
As I said to the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), it is a concession taken off the charge that everybody pays to the BBC, so it was thought fitting for the BBC to take responsibility. At the time, the country was in a severe financial situation—a very difficult fiscal situation, but I will not labour the point about the origins of the problems—which necessitated a number of difficult decisions. All public institutions and the whole public sector had to find efficiencies and reduce costs, and the BBC was no exception.
I shall make some progress, then give way in a few moments.
As the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport set out a couple of months ago, the BBC is a powerful example of how our public service broadcasters act as a force for good at home, performing in the national interest to deliver valuable news coverage and hugely popular shows.
To come back to the point I made earlier, if you have given the responsibility to the BBC, why did you include it in your election manifesto? That is the nub of the issue. Can you clarify whether you are going to honour the manifesto commitment or leave it to the BBC to make the cut that you are avoiding?
That was very naughty of the hon. Gentleman. The word “you” is intruding with increasing frequency. I did not have a manifesto and I did not make a promise on this matter, but I think the hon. Gentleman was referring to the Minister, and I am happy to vest the responsibility where it lies.
I acknowledge that the manifesto commitment was made, but draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the fact that Parliament had already voted in favour of passing responsibility to the BBC. The BBC had a responsibility to consult should it wish to make any change to the concession, as it was the Government’s expectation that the BBC would continue to honour the concession.
I recognise the vital public service provided to people of all ages, but Opposition Members are quite right that the BBC is of particular value to older people, who value television as a way of staying connected with the world.
I have already answered that question in other ways, but I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the fact that no decision has yet been made. I was saying to the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) that there was an obligation on the BBC to consult should it wish to make any change to the concession, with the Government’s expectation being that the BBC would continue to honour the concession. The BBC has conducted an extensive consultation, the results of which have not even been published yet, so it is premature to sow all this fear in older people’s minds.
I very much support the continuation of the concession, but is it not important to recognise that when the House passed the Digital Economy Act 2017, which transferred responsibility for the concession to the BBC, Opposition Members supported it?
Order. I say to the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) that his volume is almost equal to the volume at which he sings with distinction in the parliamentary rock band. If he wishes to make his point, the conventional means by which to do so is via an intervention, rather than by yelling from a sedentary position.
The truth of the matter is that by passing that responsibility on the Government have, if the BBC is to implement the Government’s pledge, taken a vast chunk out of the BBC’s budget. My constituents want to know whether the BBC could do something better with that money—for instance, by making sure that we have a proper digital service across the whole of the valleys of south Wales. Why is it right that after the Government have stopped meddling with it, the national broadcaster ends up with a budget that is a fifth of the size of Sky’s? How is that a national broadcaster?
I will in a minute, but I am still answering the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), because the point he raised was rather moot. Let me address some of the other aspects of his intervention. The BBC enjoyed a significant increase in its income following the most recent licence fee settlement: it received the benefit of iPlayer users having to pay a licence fee and built-in year-on-year inflationary increases for the duration of the five-year licence fee agreement, and the number of licence fee payers grew over that time by at least 300,000. All that has increased the income available to the BBC.
I am acting on Mr Speaker’s instructions, because I wish to point out to the Minister and the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont), who I do not think was then a Member of the House, that at the time my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) said in the Digital Economy Bill Committee:
“I rise to address new clause 38, which is in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West. I am sorry to say that this is where any cross-party consensus on the Bill ends. We absolutely do not support clause 76 or any of the amendments to it. Not only the Opposition, but the more than 4 million over-75s in this country who currently make use of this benefit oppose the clause.”––[Official Report, Digital Economy Public Bill Committee, 27 October 2016; c. 390.]
I am grateful to the shadow Minister for setting the record straight in terms of who voted for what and when, but the point is that Parliament passed this measure into law through the Digital Economy Act 2017. Of course the Government recognise the importance of providing both this valuable service and opportunities for older people to engage, which is why we launched our loneliness strategy last year. The Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies), has done a fantastic job in promoting the various services that the Government are funding with new money to enable older people to get connected, whether that be online or through social and sporting events, in 140 hubs across the country. We do take our responsibilities to older people very seriously. We are trying to help combat the loneliness that, as Opposition Members say, is a scourge of the lives of too many older people.
There is one thing that has not transpired in the debate thus far. We fully support the motion, but it seems to have escaped the notice of some people that, at the time the Act was passed two and a half years ago, Lord Hall on behalf of the BBC agreed to the proposal and therein lies some of the problem.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding me that Lord Hall welcomed the licence fee settlement, which was so ably negotiated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale). Indeed, Lord Hall said at the time:
“The Government’s decision here to put the cost of the over-75s on us has been more than matched by the deal coming back for the BBC.”
I draw the attention of hon. Members to that quote. The hon. Member for Rhondda does not need to rise as there are other people trying to intervene.
I want to make a bit of progress, because I know that many hon. Members want to speak in the debate.
The BBC’s brilliant public service and the role that it plays for older people would not be possible without the licence fee. Last year, the BBC received more than £3.8 billion in licence fee income, and it is that income that underpins the BBC’s crucial role in making sure that everyone in the UK can access the content that educates, informs and entertains. The Government recognised the importance of the licence fee when we agreed the licence fee funding settlement with the BBC in 2015. We agreed a five-year licence fee funding settlement, which provided for the first time financial certainty and a sustainable income for the BBC and we committed to maintaining the current licence fee funding model for the duration of this charter period until 2027. We unfroze the licence fee for the first time since 2010 by guaranteeing that, each year, it will rise in line with inflation.
Surely the point is this: we cannot provide financial certainty for the BBC at the expense of the over-75s. Whether or not it was right to give power to the BBC in the Digital Economy Act is not the issue. We have to look at this on the basis of the outcomes, not the processes. Will the Minister not accept that, right now, the outcomes for the over-75s look pretty grim?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I am sure that the BBC will listen to those comments, with which I have considerable sympathy. This was part of a fair deal for the BBC. I have already quoted the director-general of the BBC, but he did also say at the time that it was a strong deal for the BBC and that it provided financial stability—that is important for all viewers, whatever their age—and Parliament agreed, which we have already discussed.
As the House will recognise, the Government have been clear about their expectations on this matter. The Government guaranteed the over-75 concession at least until 2020. We agreed with the BBC, and it was approved by this House, that the future of the concession was the BBC’s decision, and the BBC is rightly operationally independent of the Government. Therefore, this matter is for the BBC. Given the importance of the issue, we have made our expectations clear. Let me just point out that the BBC has undergone a significant and extensive consultation, as it was required to do by law through the Digital Economy Act. The consultation closed in February of this year. It set out a number of options for the future of the concession and it is carefully evaluating the many, many inputs as a result of that consultation.
I thank the Minister for giving way. I am fully aware of the BBC consultation, but I am also aware of the volume of correspondence that I am getting from my constituents in Blaydon, who are telling me that this is not a matter for the BBC. They say that it was a promise made by the Government, and that her Government must abide by their commitment in the manifesto. On the impact of loneliness and the measures that the Government are taking, the evidence from my constituency is that people believe it is the Government’s responsibility to fund this measure, because watching the TV is a key way of avoiding loneliness for many older people.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I agree that watching television is a real way of combating loneliness for a lot of people, particularly older people, who live on their own, so she makes a good point. However, the point is that no decision has yet been made. I have also had a lot of correspondence on this matter mostly kindly sent to me by hon. Members from all parts of the House. The main point is that they want the concession to continue. I have not had a lot of comment about whose responsibility that should be.
The deal agreed with the BBC did establish its long-term financial footing, but does my hon. Friend agree that the financial responsibility of the BBC is not just to rely on licence fees, but to fully exploit its massive library of content? It should do so, and we should enable and encourage that commercial exploitation. It is currently worth well over £1 billion a year, but why should it not be £2 billion or £3 billion and therefore help cover some of the cost of this?
I agree strongly with my hon. Friend. He makes a very good point. That is why I am encouraged by Ofcom’s decision to loosen some of the controls under which the BBC has laboured, particularly with regard to iPlayer. There is an excellent opportunity there to sell more subscriptions around the world to watch the fantastic archived content for a lot longer than the very short period that exists at the moment—there was a constraint on the development of iPlayer for far too long.
I will just make a bit of progress and then I will give way again.
The BBC consultation set out a number of options for the future of the concession and it set out that the BBC may choose to keep the concession as it stands—a free TV licence for those aged 75 and above. It also looked carefully at the case for removing the concession entirely. As many Members will be aware, it also had a number of other options in between those two points. They include a change to the eligible age for the concession, a discounted concession, a move from a free licence to that discounted one, and the introduction of means testing. I want to reassure any older people watching that the decision has not yet been made. The BBC has listened carefully to the concerns expressed throughout the consultation. I am thankful that the BBC has consulted so widely on the issue to seek the views of licence fee payers across the country.
Is not one of the cruellest things about this that it is younger people, by and large, who have a far greater choice when it comes to TV viewing, because many of them are now using subscription services, which actually do not require a BBC licence at all and, in many cases, those services are also cheaper? Older people do not have that choice, so is it not very cruel that those are the people we are trying to restrict in their TV watching, which, as others have said, might lead to more social loneliness?
I do not necessarily agree that older people do not have that choice. I agree that many older people rely on the BBC more than any other channel—that is probably true—but older people have access to other channels in the same way as people of other age groups.
Many of my Moray constituents have contacted me, urging me to support this concession for the over-75s remaining in place. The Minister went over a number of options that the BBC is looking at. Does she understand that many people really do not agree that we should be talking about taking this TV licence concession away from the over-75s when there are so many celebrities and pundits on very high salaries?
My hon. Friend makes exactly the same point that was made emphatically to me by a very good friend and constituent of mine. The BBC operates in a tough commercial environment. To our minds, such salaries might seem extraordinary—at times, ridiculous—but these are the salaries for very well-established celebrities, sportsmen and women, and a number of others. The BBC has to compete, but I take my hon. Friend’s point; it is one that has been made well by other people who have written to me.
One of my Colne Valley constituents said to me, “The TV is the companion in the corner of the room for me, and I would be so lonely without it.” Is the Minister happy to take that companion away from 6,750 over-75s in Colne Valley? [Interruption.]
My right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon has just reminded me that it is a decision for the BBC to make. I am sure that the BBC has listened to the hon. Lady and others across the House. I have also received such letters, and I do understand. I draw her attention to the fact that there is a range of options. I would gently say that not every older person over the age of 75 would be unable to afford to contribute to the future of our great broadcaster. It is important that we remember that, sadly, there have had to be efficiencies and reductions across the public sector, and the BBC has been no exception. The future of the concession is down to the BBC; it is no longer the Government’s decision. I look forward to the BBC’s final decision on the future of the concession, which I anticipate it will announce next month.
Before I call the Scottish National party spokesperson, let me say that colleagues will be aware that this is a very well-subscribed debate, so I expect Back-Bench speeches to be five minutes in length. That will mean that we can get everybody in.
I am delighted to speak in this debate but it feels as though, when I get on my feet in this place, it is increasingly because the Government appear to be completely abrogating their responsibilities towards our older people. Whether they are removing pension credits from mixed-age couples, or failing to keep their side of the bargain and pay the pensions due to women born in the 1950s who received little or no notice of the rise in the state pension age, it seems that this is happening more and more. I wonder whether the Minister is comfortable with the undeniable narrative that is emerging.
Today we are talking about the UK Government’s decision—and it is their decision—to have a go at the over-75s. I have already raised this matter several times in the Chamber and I have written to the Secretary of State, as have others; but I have never had a proper or meaningful response. Today I had been hoping for that response, but sadly we have just heard a wee bit more of the same. It is important to be clear that the Government have maintained—we heard this again today—that they are not scrapping TV licences for the over-75s, and that they are simply delegating responsibility for those licences to the BBC. This is a game of semantics that tells us that the Government want to scrap the free TV licences but do not want to take responsibility for doing so. It simply will not wash.
At the hustings during the 2017 general election campaign, a member of the audience said to me that he felt that the Government were often punishing him for growing old, partly through the measures that the hon. Lady just mentioned. Does she agree that this was an opportunity for the Government to do something to prove that they do take into account the difficulties faced by pensioners and people aged over 75—the loneliness that not having television could provoke—rather than reinforcing the feeling of being punished?
I absolutely agree. The Government have picked a fight with over-75s for no particular reason, and for no particular benefit that I can see. But not taking responsibility for this matter simply will not wash.
I ask the Minister, since when has the BBC become an offshoot of the Department for Work and Pensions? The BBC is a broadcaster. It should not, and must not, be charged with deciding how much support our pensioners should receive from wider society. The UK Government have undoubtedly abrogated their responsibility for TV licences, and have left the BBC to decide whether it will impose this charge on the over-75s. The BBC will have £745 million less to spend annually on programmes—the combined budget of BBC 2, BBC 4 and BBC Radio 3 —if it continues with the free TV licences. Options being considered range across the BBC taking on the funding, seeking partial payment or removing the concession entirely, putting it in an impossible position.
The hon. Lady is making a very good speech. The fact is that this benefit given to elderly pensioners is a benefit—I speak as someone with an interest, because I think I am the only person here who is over 75 and actually receives the free television licence—but a benefit should be paid for out of progressive taxation, whereby the rich pay most and the poor pay least. As everyone under 75 pays for our licences, some of those people are very poor indeed, effectively having to pay some contribution towards broadcasting, which should be paid for by the state.
I agree. When we move away from progressive taxation we move into a system that is extremely unfair, and not the kind of society that most of us want to live in.
Former BBC director-general Greg Dyke suggested that leaving the BBC to pick up the tab would impact on programme quality. He said:
“Let’s not kid ourselves this won’t have an impact on what the BBC will supply. It will.”
As well as the impossible choice that has been foisted on the BBC as the UK Government seek cover, this policy means that the Tories are rolling back on their manifesto pledge to maintain pensioner benefits, including free TV licences. How can older people—indeed, anyone—trust what they say in any future manifesto pledge?
Let us remember that the reason that all households with someone aged over 75 have been entitled to receive free TV licences, funded by the UK Government, is to help tackle pensioner poverty and isolation. The Tories have decided to cease funding completely from next year. If the free TV licences are scrapped, the consequences for my constituents in North Ayrshire and Arran, of whom more than 9,000 will be affected, will be far-reaching. Combating loneliness is very important when it comes to health outcomes for older people. To try to contract out that responsibility to the BBC is cowardly, fools no one and sets a dangerous precedent.
According to the BBC’s own figures, scrapping the over-75s concessionary licence will take an average of more than £22,000 a week out of the pockets of over-75s in every single constituency, and we know that many thousands of pensioners already struggle to make ends meet. Age Scotland’s “money matters” project found that four in 10 people over the age of 50 report feeling financially squeezed, and its survey on the housing needs of older people found that six in 10 pensioners who live alone report difficulties paying their fuel bills. We know that 70% of over-75s have a long-standing illness and 29% live below or just above the poverty line. Make no mistake: this Government are effectively asking our older people to choose between switching on the heating or turning on the TV. Having another bill to pay will push many more below the poverty line, or deeper into poverty. As of 1 April, the cost of the colour TV licence increased to £154.50. Age UK has warned that scrapping the concession would push 50,000 over-75s into relative poverty. That should cause the Government to hang their head in shame.
The financial strain can be further exacerbated by any disability or long-term health conditions that an older person may be living with. The proportion of adults with a long-term, limiting health condition is increasing as the population ages. More than four-fifths of people aged 85 or over have reported that their daily lives are limited by a long-term health problem or disability. That is important, as there are numerous extra costs associated with having a disability or long-term health condition, such as having to get taxis more often to get out and about, and extra heating costs. Many rely on their television for companionship and entertainment. For the considerable number who do not have the internet, TV helps them to stay up to date with what is happening in the world.
The Government have told this House repeatedly that they cannot pay women born in the 1950s their pensions because we are all living longer. Well, given that the Government recognise that we are all living longer, they cannot shirk their responsibilities and abandon those who are living longest. The Government cannot have this both ways. The goalposts cannot be shifted depending on which particular group of society they wish to shaft at any particular time; it is simply not good enough.
For many older people, their television is not just a box in the corner—it is company. Television is a lifeline, particularly for those who are most vulnerable and older. If mobility issues mean that someone struggles to get out and about, the TV helps them to stay connected. When money is a constant worry and that is stressful, it is an escape. When people spend their days alone, it gives them something to look forward to, and they often identify closely with TV characters and personalities. Figures show that over-75s watch an average of 33 hours of television each week, compared with eight hours a week for those in their 20s. Imagine the loss of that lifeline for so many of our poorer pensioners, who simply will not be able to afford the cost of a TV licence.
Let us not forget—this has not been mentioned yet—that every year people are fined for non-payment of their TV licence. To potentially prosecute people in their 80s and 90s is completely unacceptable, and it could well happen if these free television licences are abolished. I ask the Minister: is this an example of addressing the “burning injustices” that the Prime Minister once spoke about? I believe it is vital to support our pensioners. Not only is the UK state pension the lowest in the developed world relative to wages; it has been further damaged by the Tory Government’s plans to reduce eligibility for pension credit, leaving some couples out of pocket by £7,320 every year. If we throw in their contempt for women born in the 1950s regarding increases in the pension age, it is clear that the Government have no intention of honouring the contribution that our elderly population have made over the years.
The BBC is a broadcaster. Public welfare is not its remit, and it should not be expected to decide whether older people have free TV licences or not.
I thank the hon. Lady for the very strong speech that she is making. As I said earlier, a lot of older people who have contacted me are deeply frustrated because they see this decision as having no democratic accountability. They want Members in this House to make a decision and then implement it. Because of the agreement made with the BBC some years ago, this decision has been delegated—put out of this place—and that is deeply frustrating. Does she agree that this must change, and that this House must take action on it?
I absolutely agree. We have a worrying trend of Parliament being bypassed. I know that minority government is not a comfortable place to be, but if a party of government cannot come to the Chamber and sell its policies, maybe the policies are the problem, not Parliament itself.
The BBC should not be making this decision. It should not and must not become the responsibility of a broadcaster. Lord Bragg has said:
“The BBC is not an organisation that should collect taxes, of which the licence fee is one, for social purposes. Its money should be used for making programmes.”
Clearly, the UK Government disagree. I urge the Tories—I urge this Government—to honour this extremely important manifesto commitment, to do the right thing and to maintain pensioner benefits, including the TV licence, so that elderly people can continue to watch television for free instead of having to choose between watching television and switching on their heating and/or potentially being criminalised in their twilight years for watching “Coronation Street”.
Some say—I have heard them say it today—that many pensioners could pay for their own TV licence. That is not an argument to impose a charge for free TV licences; it is an argument against universalism that takes us down an extremely dangerous road. It is a distracting diversion that is being used as a tactic to remove essential support. In any case, it does not matter whether one thinks that universalism as a principle is wrong—the fact is that this was in the Tory manifesto, and the back-pedalling and attempt to deflect responsibility on to the BBC is fooling no one.
This policy is perhaps the most mean-spirited policy of this Government so far—and that is saying something. The Government need to get a grip, stop attacking our older people, accord them the care and respect they are due, and stop making life more difficult for them. As we have heard, it is extremely important that this House is allowed to have its say on this policy, because every single MP in this place should have the courage to go back to their older constituents, look them in the eye and explain why they voted—if they voted—to remove free TV licences from them.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate. As the Minister pointed out, I was the Secretary of State at the time when the licence fee settlement was agreed with the BBC, so I would like to set out some of the reasons why those decisions were reached.
As the Opposition spokesman said, the concessionary TV licence for over-75s is not a fundamental pillar of the welfare state—it was actually introduced by the previous Labour Government. It was introduced to address an anomaly that elderly people living in sheltered housing did not have to pay the full licence fee whereas others did. However, the Labour Government did not introduce free TV licences for all pensioners, on the basis that it was far too expensive to do so—they restricted it to those aged over 75 at a cost, at that time, of £365 million. It is important to realise that that money was not removed from the BBC—it was given to the BBC by the Department for Work and Pensions. It has always been the case, since then, that the cost of exemption from the TV licence is met out of the Government’s budget. The cost to the Government of doing so has risen steadily, so that by last year it had already reached £660 million.
I had the task of negotiating both the new BBC charter and the licence fee settlement. Personally, I would have much preferred that the licence fee had been included within the charter negotiations, since the licence fee settlement, to some extent, pre-empted decisions that we took as a result of the charter review process. However, as the Minister rightly pointed out, we were in very difficult financial circumstances thanks to the profligacy of the previous Labour Government, and we had to take a lot of very difficult decisions. The then Chancellor was clear that we should seek to achieve savings from the BBC, as a publicly owned institution funded by the Government, in the same way that all other public institutions were being asked to find savings. So we agreed with the BBC that it would take over the cost of funding the licence fee concession. However, we were also clear that we had given a pledge that the concession would be maintained until 2020, and therefore the agreement with the BBC was that it would take it over in 2020.
I have to say to the House that the negotiations with the BBC over that were indeed robust. I remember sitting down with the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, with George Osborne and with Lord Hall, the director-general of the BBC, and we had some good discussions in which Lord Hall argued forcibly that this would have a detrimental impact on the BBC. Therefore, in recognition of that, we also included, as part of the licence fee settlement, agreement to address some of the things the BBC raised as its principal concerns. One was the freeze in the licence fee. The licence fee had not gone up at all for a number of years, and therefore the BBC was looking at a real-terms reduction every year. We agreed that the licence fee should be unfrozen. Secondly, a growing number of people were avoiding paying the licence fee by watching the BBC on catch-up, through the iPlayer. Under the law as it then stood, if someone watched the BBC a mere two minutes after the live transmission, they did not have to pay the licence fee. The licence fee was therefore extended to close what was called the iPlayer loophole.
Does my right hon. Friend agree with the director-general of the BBC, Lord Hall, that the funding arrangements put in place with the BBC by my right hon. Friend and the previous Prime Minister, David Cameron, represented a fair deal?
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend, because he allows me to quote the director-general. As I say, our negotiations were robust, but we emerged from them with the director-general issuing a public statement saying that it was
“the right deal… in difficult economic circumstances”.
He went on to say:
“Far from being a cut, the way this financial settlement is shaped gives us, effectively, flat licence fee income across the first five years of the next charter.”
I do not know whether my right hon. Friend will mention this part of the licence fee deal, but it is worth making the point that the last Labour Government imposed on the licence fee a levy to fund broadband roll-out, and because of the success of the broadband roll-out under our Government, we removed that levy from the BBC. While there was a stick with free TV licences, there were carrots with the removal of some of the subsidies the last Government had asked the BBC to provide.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who was also a key player at that time as a Minister in the Department. He is absolutely right. I mentioned two of the BBC’s requests at the time—the unfreezing of the licence fee and the closure of the loophole—but he is correct to point out that the BBC had always been unhappy about the top-slicing of the licence fee to fund broadband, which it saw as far removed from the purpose of the licence fee. That was another agreement we reached with the BBC, which I think was why the BBC felt that it was a fair and proper settlement.
The right hon. Gentleman is implying that the BBC was happy with all this at the time, but in the press statement announcing the consultation, the BBC said:
“The BBC could copy the scheme… but we think it would fundamentally change the BBC because of the scale of service cuts we would need to make.”
That is not the statement of an organisation that thinks it can easily absorb this.
The agreement with the BBC was that it would have responsibility for maintaining or amending the licence fee concession. The right hon. Gentleman quoted the BBC’s view about the cost of maintaining the concession as it stands, and that view is understandable, since the cost next year will be £745 million, rising to £1.06 billion by 2029-30. I am not at all surprised that the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson) was unable to give any commitment that a future Labour Government would maintain the concession at the cost of the taxpayer, since that would be a £1 billion public expenditure pledge.
In recognition of that, the BBC has put forward three different options. It has talked about continuation, which, as the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) said, it feels is not realistic, as that would amount to the current cost of BBC 2, BBC 3, BBC 4, the news channel, CBBC and CBeebies all put together. It has also suggested some amendment to the concession, or discontinuing it altogether. Each of the three possible amendments to the licence fee concession that the BBC has suggested has some attraction. It has talked about raising the age limit to 77 or 80, which to some extent would reflect the ageing population and maintain roughly the same proportion. A second possibility is to introduce a discounted fee, so that people over 75 would not have to pay the full cost.
My right hon. Friend, who is an excellent neighbour, is making an excellent speech. Many of my constituents who are over 75 have emailed me to say that they want to continue to watch the TV with a free licence, but they are not necessarily also watching the BBC on multiple other devices, as many younger people are. Can my right hon. Friend see a case for older members of the public still being able to watch the BBC via a single device, while younger people watch on multiple devices? Would that sort of system work?
I will of course take account of your guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker, but my hon. Friend raises an interesting point, which I want to touch on as I conclude my remarks.
The third possible amendment would be to limit the concession to those in receipt of pension credit. That would address many of the concerns expressed by Opposition Members about those on very low incomes finding it hard to afford and would introduce an element of targeting, to ensure that those who will struggle to afford the television licence do not have to do so.
There is another change that I ask the BBC to consider, which is not included in its options. At the moment, households are entitled to a free television licence if a member of the household is over 75. It is ridiculous that a household might have four adults of working age who are all bringing in an income, but because they happen to have their grandmother living with them, they do not have to pay for a television licence. I ask the BBC to consider a simple change, to restrict the concession to households that only consist of people aged over 75.
I want to end by saying that this raises fundamental questions about the future of the licence fee. Viewing habits are changing, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) indicated. Evasion of the TV licence is rising. It has gone up from 5.2% in 2010 to an estimated 7% now, with the advent of new services such as Netflix and Amazon, and soon possibly Apple and Disney. The old argument that every household needs to pay the licence fee because everybody watches the BBC is, I am afraid, beginning to break down, and we are reaching a position where many households watch the huge range of programmes available and never turn to the BBC.
That is why I have always believed that, in the long term, the licence fee is not sustainable. We addressed that at the beginning of the charter review. It is recognised by the director-general, who has said that the BBC needs to look at alternative models and has mentioned the possibility of introducing subscription services on iPlayer. At the moment, there is no alternative to the licence fee because we do not have a system where people who choose not to pay it can be cut off; that was why we reached the conclusion that the licence fee had to be maintained. But in the longer term, that will not be true. There will come a time when the licence fee cannot be sustained, but that will be the task of the future Secretary of State who has the job of undertaking the next charter review.
Free TV licences for over-75s were introduced in 2000 by a Labour Government—one of the many policies introduced by Labour to deliver a better quality of life for the people of this nation. Many of the people who voted Conservative in the 2017 general election likely did so expecting the Tory Government to continue to provide free TV licences for people over 75, as it was in the party’s manifesto, alongside promises to keep free bus passes, eye tests and prescriptions for the duration of this Parliament. If the Government were one who kept their manifesto promises, I could happily end my speech now. Sadly, as with many of the promises made by this Government, that manifesto pledge has been broken, and it once again falls on Labour and other Opposition Members to explain to the Government why the policy of scrapping free TV licences for over-75s will cause great harm to some of the most vulnerable in our society.
As I expected, the Minister made out that it is not the Government’s decision to scrap free TV licences for over-75s but the BBC’s, and the BBC is now the one in charge of licensing. While that is technically correct, the reality is that this Conservative Government have unloaded their pledge to the elderly of this nation on to the BBC—outsourcing without the funding. Essentially, they are saying to the BBC, “You fund the free licences and decide whether they should continue”. The Tory Government know full well that the BBC will not have the financial capabilities to maintain this programme and eventually will need to cancel the free TV licences. This is not the fault of the BBC. The expected cost of the free licences will be £745 million by 2021-22, but I would add that under this Government, due to austerity, life expectancy is predicted to decline.
To put the outsourcing by this Government into context, it is a fifth of the BBC’s budget and the equivalent of what is spent today on BBC 2, BBC 3, BBC 4, the BBC News channel, CBBC and CBeebies. That would be the cost in funding and programming. A broadcaster should not be expected to take on the role that is clearly within the realm of a Government Department. This is a Tory Government using smoke and mirrors.
If free TV licences were to be scrapped, 2.4 million older people living entirely on their own would lose their TV licence, and a means-tested system would lead to 1.6 million losing their licence. In my constituency alone, 7,100 people could lose their licence, and £1 million would be robbed out of the pockets of those vulnerable people. Age UK estimates that over 2 million over-75s would need to go without a TV licence or be forced to give up essentials such as heating or even food.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way—eventually. Four in 10 older people say that their TV is their main source of company, and Age UK says that cutting their access to it would be an “unthinkably cruel blow”. Does she agree with me that the Government need to stop passing the buck, and need to honour their promises and keep TV licences free for our over-75s?
I absolutely do. I have mentioned what Age UK has found about 29% of over-75s, and £154.50 out of a fixed income will push those just above the line into poverty.
Television is a bridge to the outside world for the 2 million people over 75, of whom almost half are disabled and many others have serious health conditions. When mobility is difficult and people struggle even to get to the end of their street, the TV will often be the only companionship, entertainment and stimulation available. The United Kingdom is facing a loneliness epidemic among our elderly, and it is not good enough that one in four see a television as their only source of companionship. In fact, the only human voices they hear are from the television, and it is important for our sanity that we hear human voices. It is fundamentally wrong for this Government, through this policy, to take away the little bit that people do have. Many of our elderly in this nation are not online, and those who are may struggle with technology, as I do.
This policy, which will do so much harm, is clear evidence that the Government have not brought austerity to an end, but are driving forward their heartless and unnecessary austerity agenda. The UK is spending less on public expenditure as a percentage of GDP: it has now dropped to just over 40%—40.8%—from 48%. This is one of the lowest in the developed world when compared with similar nations such as Germany and Finland, which spend 4% and 12% more of their GDP than we do. How can this Tory Government justify not continuing to fund the financing required to maintain free TV licences for over-75s?
Labour has a clear alternative, which is not to force the BBC into an impossible position where it has no choice but to scrap or severely cut free TV licences for the over-75s. A Labour Government would commit to delivering free TV licences to the over-75s, providing support and company for some of the most vulnerable of our people.
I call on the Government to step in and to deliver their manifesto pledge and their promise to protect free TV licences for the over-75s to ensure that those people are not forced to make an unacceptable choice between what little companionship they have and living in the cold and having less food on their plates.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer), but I have to say that it is a shame this debate has descended into party politics. Actually, it should be about the future of the BBC—how the BBC’s funding can properly abide by the strictures by which it has to abide and how it is to deliver its services in the future—but we seem to be having a debate other than the one that is sensible.
I love the BBC. I worked for the BBC on and off for 20 years, and it is the best broadcaster in the world. I would never support any sort of arrangement for the future funding of the BBC that I thought would do it damage or that I thought would lead to under-serving the people who deserve to be served by the BBC as the best public broadcaster in the world. The BBC produces some of the stand-out TV in what is now a global TV industry—with “Line of Duty”, which had nearly 10 million viewers on Sunday, as well as “Strictly Come Dancing”, “Bodyguard”, “Blue Peter” and “Match of the Day”—and it has its unrivalled news coverage, its radio, its online services, its children’s programmes and all the research and development it does. I am a passionate supporter of the BBC, but we should be debating how we ensure the future security of funding for the BBC and the future security of provision of service for all the people who enjoy the BBC.
Let us be clear: as has been mentioned in the past, the funding deal the BBC accepted in June 2015 gave it financial stability for five years. It was a deal that saw a guaranteed, copper-bottomed, real-terms increase in funding for the BBC. That is the sort of arrangement private commercial organisations can only dream of. They would think it was all their Christmases come at once to have that sort of guaranteed income for five years. In addition, as was mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), as part of the deal the contribution that the BBC previously made to the roll-out of superfast broadband—it used to contribute £150 million a year—was cut to zero by 2020, and the iPlayer loophole was quite rightly closed, bringing in an extra £41 million a year.
The BBC was very happy with that deal. It welcomed the deal, and it accepted the deal. I have two quotes for the House, although I will not go over ground that has already been covered. Lord Hall, as I suppose we should properly call him, the BBC’s director-general, said that
“the BBC used this pre-budget window of opportunity to reach a fair deal”.
Furthermore, speaking on the Radio 4 “Today” programme, one of the fantastic institutions that the public quite rightly pay the BBC to produce, he said:
“The government’s decision here to put the cost of the over-75s on us”—
in other words, the BBC—
“has been more than matched by the deal coming back for the BBC. My bottom line was, if I can use this as an opportunity to get back for the BBC things I think are really important—an inflation-set licence fee and an end to top-slicing—then I think that is really important. And that is exactly what we have done.”
The BBC accepted this deal. It accepted this guaranteed, copper-bottomed funding increase and welcomed it, and it now needs to live within its means. I have to say, having worked on and off for the BBC for 20 years, that there are many ways, it is sad to say, in which the BBC does not do so. We have recently seen figures showing that there are now nearly 100 members of BBC staff who earn more than £150,000 a year, and some of them earn a lot more than that. We have recently seen that the BBC’s programme for developing a new “EastEnders” set has gone £30 million over budget and will be delivered three and a half years late—it is almost as though they are building a railway line—and an entire technology project aimed at digitising all its programmes has had to be cut, after spending nearly £60 million. The BBC must look more carefully at how it spends its money and at the salaries it pays its staff. It must ensure that it can continue to deliver the concession that we are discussing, which it accepted in a deal from the Government.
I apologise for not being here for the opening of the debate. I am the chairman of the all-party parliamentary BBC group, and I want to speak in support of the BBC. Does my hon. Friend agree that although the BBC needs to live within its means, 20% of its budget will be too much for it to absorb, and therefore the BBC should be free to make this decision without political pressure?
I agree with the last part of what my hon. Friend has said. The BBC should absolutely be free to make this decision without political pressure and without the scaremongering that we have, sadly, heard from the Opposition.
A point has been made about loneliness. Of course, older people rely very much on the BBC. I represent North Devon, a constituency with a higher than average proportion of older people and people who live alone. I will not take lessons from anyone about how best to represent them and ensure that they get what they need.
I can tell that you are eager for a denouement, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I want to give other hon. and right hon. Members the opportunity to contribute. Let me conclude by saying that I am a huge supporter of the BBC. I love the BBC, and I love the programmes and services it delivers, but it must live within its means. We must accept that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon has said, after robust negotiations the BBC accepted responsibility for the continuation of this concession. I call on the BBC to do so.
I am pleased to be able to add my voice to this significant debate. I make no apology for the fact that what I am about to say may cover some things that have already been mentioned. Scrapping the free TV licence for over-75s will have a significant impact on people’s lives. For millions of over-75s, the TV is not just a box—or even a screen—in the corner; it is their constant companion and window on the world. For some, television is their main form of company, as we have heard, and it plays a central role in their lives.
The Tory manifesto stated that the party would maintain the promise to provide free TV licences for the over-75s, but the Government have changed their mind with no apology. They have created this situation by pushing the free TV licence scheme on to the BBC. For me, that shows disregard and disrespect for our older population. The BBC is considering taking away the rights of those people to free TV licences. This is the Government’s responsibility, not the BBC’s. We need to preserve the quality stations that the BBC presents.
If the change goes ahead, it could lead to increased loneliness among over-75s, because more than a million older people say that the TV is their main source of company. The change could cause poverty; research by Age UK has found that scrapping the free TV licence could push more pensioners into poverty. In my constituency, there are 4,790 households that include people over the age of 75.
The change will affect people with disability, because people with restricted mobility rely heavily on the TV for companionship and entertainment. It also ties in to digital exclusion. More than half of over-75s do not use the internet, and they rely on the television as a source of news and information. That plays a crucial role in their ability to be an active citizen in a democracy.
My elderly mother has a TV. She has it on in the background, and she listens to the radio. She watches her soaps, the news and debates from the House of Commons Chamber.
Some people enjoy that, obviously. For many of our older parents, friends, grandparents and other family members, the TV is crucial to their life and wellbeing, and it plays a significant role in their lives.
For me, the change that we are discussing raises questions about how the Government treat the older generation, and those questions are not limited to TV licences. Some 5,000 WASPI women in Lewisham East still await compensation following the unfair equalisation of the state pension. There is a crisis in social care, which the Government seem unwilling even to acknowledge. The voluntary sector, which is filling the gaps, is under severe financial pressure as grants from the Government have receded. The Minister and the Government need to take a long, hard look at the choices they are making, and how those choices are affecting our older population.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby). I stood in Lewisham, Deptford in 2005 when my now neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly), stood for Lewisham East; obviously, we have both been a bit more successful since then. It is the first time I have spoken after the hon. Lady, and I welcome her to the House.
I was not intending to speak, but earlier I intervened on the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson), to ask him a question that is fundamental to this debate. I asked him whether, in principle, a multimillionaire should receive a free TV licence, and he said, in effect, “Of course they should.” I happen to disagree fundamentally with that proposition.
That is a completely different point, and let me explain why—[Interruption.] Calm down; give me a moment. The original response—the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) made this point, very fairly—was that it is about universality. The justification for providing free TV licences regardless of wealth is that they are a universal benefit.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) pointed out, however, eligibility for a free TV licence over the age of 75 was introduced only in 2000. There is no way that anyone could say it was a fundamental tenet of the welfare state contract—something that someone would expect to receive in exchange for their contributions—unlike treatment on the national health service, which has been there since just after the war and is very clearly based on the principle of paying into the system, sharing risk and receiving. I think most people accept that point.
I did, but this is a debating Chamber—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) does not agree. I hope that she makes some original points when she comes to speak. I simply say that there will probably be a general election at some point in the next few years, and possibly before 2022. In this Chamber, we should debate policy; that is what we are put here to do.
I happen to think that one of the biggest questions we face concerns the fact that people who are going into work today will not receive an occupational pension, because such pensions have disappeared. Many retired people—good luck to them; my parents are in this category —receive good occupational pensions. Some of those people, although not most, would be regarded by many as relatively wealthy. In my view, therefore, we must look at the principle of taxing benefits that are paid out as so-called freebies—of course, the money has to come from somewhere—according to the recipients’ means.
I want to expand on the point about the difference between the welfare state as originally devised by the 1945 Government, and what we have now. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it is a moveable feast? Things have been added and taken away over the years. For example, dentistry was included at first, and it is not now. We added the free TV licences in 2000, and David Cameron added universal infant free school meals—heaven forbid that anyone would try to take them away now. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the welfare state has changed and evolved over the years, and that is a good thing?
The hon. Lady makes a perfectly fair point. The welfare state has always evolved. At heart, however, it is about the contributory system. I think most people would expect that when they pay into the system, they will get what they were told they would receive. Obviously, anyone who was over 75 in 2000 and went on to receive a free TV licence cannot conceivably have been told, when they began paying contributions at the start of their working life, that that was one of the benefits that they would receive.
Of course, the obvious point to be made is this: does that mean that I think we should not have free TV licences for the over-75s? The short answer is that I do not think there should be a TV licence. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon that it is not remotely sustainable as a solution. In my office in Parliament, I have three young members of staff. We worked out that we have three subscriptions to Netflix, two to Amazon Prime and one to Now TV. The whole world of TV viewing in this country is changing very rapidly and the licence fee is deeply anachronistic. It is levied on people without any reference to their ability to pay and without reference to whether they even watch the BBC. It does not seem to fit the era in which we live or the direction in which communications is heading.
How should we pay for it? I do not imagine that I am the world’s foremost expert on this point, but I think that—taking the principle of public service broadcasting, which I do believe in—everyone should contribute to some degree, based on their ability to pay. We should look at a core service for the BBC funded by, for example, a supplement on subscriptions to Netflix, to ensure that everyone who benefits from having a public broadcaster contributes to some degree.
In this Chamber, we could all stand up at any time and say the easiest thing. The easiest thing here is to say how wrong it is to take away this responsibility from the Government and put it on the BBC. The easy point to make would be to suggest that we as Conservatives are somehow taking benefits away from people or doing something harsh. The reality is that the welfare contract I have referred to throughout my speech is changing fundamentally.
I will give way to the hon. Lady in a moment. It will be my last intervention, Madam Deputy Speaker.
We cannot ignore the fact that we have an intergenerational issue. That is no one’s fault, by the way— no one intended it to be like that—but those entering work now will not receive occupational pensions or many of the benefits that those who have retired have done. The implications of that need to be debated at some point.
When we look back over the comments from the BBC at that time, it is clear—many people have referenced this—that many people welcomed it because it was getting concessions elsewhere that they believed would offset that. The issue facing us here today is that they got those concessions and banked them. They have now changed their mind and it is older people who are going to suffer. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the ball was dropped and that a guarantee should have been put into the agreement that if concessions were going to be handed over there should at least have been a guaranteed period to protect free licences for older people or for the issue to have come back to this place?
I have always admired the hon. Lady and in particular her party when it comes to negotiations. They do tend to take a robust stance. I understand the negotiations with my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon were particularly robust, but she makes a very fair point.
I will conclude by saying that all universal benefits—the winter fuel allowance, the free bus pass and the TV licence—are coming under scrutiny because we are having to look at where we get the money to pay for social care and so on. We cannot spend the money twice. The money we give to someone who owns a vast estate and receives a free TV licence is money we could have spent on the social care of those with dementia and so on. We should not pretend. Public money is not finite and we should debate the fairest way to allocate it. When we look at the sustainability of the TV licence funding system and the sustainability of the welfare contract, we will find that in the years to come there will have to be change. It is time we started to debate that.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge). I remind him that the BBC still reaches over 92% of the population every week. It is a great pleasure to support the motion, which is made the stronger by the fact that it is supported by all the major Opposition parties.
I want to put the motion in context. Democratic Unionist party Members talked about a lack of democracy. If we look back at how the licence fee settlement was reached—certainly the last two times, possibly the last three or four times—there has been a lack of parliamentary scrutiny and accountability. If there had been that accountability and scrutiny, we would be in a very different place today. Basically, this was presented as a done deal.
I listened carefully to the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale). His most important phrase was, “the Chancellor made clear”. He described Lord Hall—I do not know whether he was on his own—being surrounded by the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and others. George Osborne is the villain of the piece here. In 2010, he had his first go at imposing this settlement on the BBC. He tried to get the BBC to accept responsibility for the over-75s. He was opposed at that point by the director-general, Mark Thompson, and the chair of the BBC Trust, Michael Lyons, who were supported, crucially, by the Liberal Democrats. The coalition Government was probably the difference between the situation in 2010 and 2015. George Osborne came back and imposed his will in 2015. It was a good settlement, but only for five years. The BBC were bullied into accepting that settlement and the Chancellor got his way.
All the briefing at the time was that the settlement was throwing red meat to the Tory Back Benches, and that the BBC had been put back in their box. I am glad to see that recently, as the former Chancellor has taken a new job as the editor of the Evening Standard—there is joy in heaven, Madam Deputy Speaker, when a sinner repenteth—he put his name to an editorial the other day that praised the BBC. It could have been written by a BBC publicist:
“With the budgets for new content from the likes of Netflix and Amazon now many times that which are available to the BBC, we need to think more strategically. All the ingredients are there: a highly trusted news brand, a global reach, an amazing archive and original content”—
no red meat to the Back Benches there. Unfortunately, he concludes:
“A new mistake would be giving in to the predictable short-term pressure to exempt over-75s from the licence fee”.
He is wrong, because a solemn promise was made, in the full knowledge that the Digital Economy Act 2017 had been passed, and that the Government did not have the power to put that promise into effect. I have a great deal of respect for the Minister. Her best line, I think, was, “We have made our expectations clear to the BBC”. I wonder what those expectations are. I should be grateful if Ministers would make that clear. Are they pressurising the BBC to arrive at a certain outcome?
My hon. Friend, like many other Members, has met the BBC. My main concern is that it will recoup the money through cuts, particularly to local radio, which is a lifeline to our communities given the death of local newspapers. Does he accept that that would be a real loss if that was what came out of this debacle?
The fundamental issue is the future of the BBC. We are not just talking about local radio. If the BBC is forced to continue with concessions and has to pay for them, the whole of radio will go. We are not talking about Gary Lineker’s salary; we are talking about the whole of BBC sport. Some 3% of total sports viewing is now produced by the BBC, but that includes the women’s World cup and women’s netball. All of that will go. It is not small beer.
Some might say that times have changed since 2000, and that pensioners are no more likely to be poor than the rest of the population. However, pensioners are more likely to be lonely, to be ill and to feel the cold at night. The great measures that Gordon Brown brought in—the winter fuel payments, the free bus pass and the TV licence—give pensioners dignity. They are a reward for their contribution to society over many years. Means-testing would completely change the nature of those benefits.
I will conclude with a plea to hon. Members on the Tory Benches, because I do not think this is over yet. A very important commitment was given today by the deputy leader of the Labour party: if there is a general election—as an MP with a majority of 249, I view the idea with mixed feelings, but every day is a bonus—we will go into it with a pledge to fund free TV licences for the over-75s. I will be proud to go into the election with that platform, which I think will definitely be a winner. There will also be a Tory leadership contest, and I think TV licences for the over-75s will be an issue in the shires and among the candidates. Let us break free from the shackles of George Osborne and unite across the House to fully fund the licence fee concession for the over-75s.
In 2000, the Labour Government took the very positive step of exempting the over-75s from television licence charges. Millions of people have benefited; 5,220 pensioner households currently benefit in my constituency. In 2017, the Conservative manifesto promised those people and their families, in Burnley and Padiham and throughout the country, that that benefit would continue. That promise has been broken, those people have been betrayed, and I have heard nothing from Conservative Members to mitigate that.
The decision to outsource the commitment to the BBC is a betrayal. Shockingly, the decision was made in a closed room with no public consultation and no consideration of impact. More than £150 a year may not seem like an awful lot to Conservative Members, but for pensioners on a fixed income it is a substantial amount. Age UK estimates that more than 2 million pensioner households will cut back on food and heating to pay the licence fee, while others will give up their TV altogether.
Does the Minister understand that for many people over 75, particularly those who live alone, the TV is literally a lifeline? Loneliness and social isolation are reaching epidemic proportions, and older people are far more likely to be affected. Many rely on their TV for companionship: the Campaign to End Loneliness has found that 40% of old people cite TV as their only source of companionship. For those who are housebound, the TV may be the only voice that they hear; without it, the long, lonely evenings will be even lonelier. But it is more than that: for so many people, switching on the television set represents their only connection with the outside world. Less than 50% of people in the over-75 age group have access to online news, and the majority are unaware of social media and the vast array of online services. To all intents and purposes they are digitally excluded, so their access to TV is even more important.
The Government have outsourced the delivery of their manifesto commitment and are now sneakily and shamefully trying to outsource responsibility. There is a pattern here: the Government have a habit of outsourcing services but with no funding to go with them. We need look no further than the shifting of public health responsibility to local government—another short-sighted Tory shambles, which is destined to lead to more problems and an increased financial burden on the NHS.
The BBC has been placed in an impossible position. The cost of providing free TV licences for the over-75s currently amounts to £745 million a year, which equates to 18% of the BBC’s service budget. A budget reduction of such magnitude, at a time when operational costs are rising and competition from Sky and Netflix is increasing, is unsustainable and can be managed only by reducing the channels and services offered to customers. The BBC is at the forefront of the UK creative industries, with an enviable reputation right across the world. Forcing it to take this financial hit is a blow to the entire industry sector, which contributes more than £100 billion a year to the UK economy.
I am also mindful that withdrawing this benefit will be yet another blow to the economy in my constituency. Withdrawing free licences for all over-75s will take £785,610 out of Burnley. If the benefit were means-tested instead, and only those pensioners who claim pensioner credit were allowed to keep their free licences, the cut to Burnley would still amount to more than £500,000. It really is a scandal. The Government must think again.
The central point is that it is not the BBC’s responsibility to fund this benefit. Free television licences for the over-75s are a social benefit, which should be funded by the Government. The Government are trying to shirk their responsibilities. This is yet another broken election promise that makes an absolute mockery of their claim that austerity is over. If austerity is over, they should do the decent thing, keep their promises, fund this universal service and give our senior citizens the support that they deserve.
It is great to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper), who made an excellent case.
By failing to protect the free TV licence for over-75s, the Government are shamefully breaking their own 2017 manifesto pledge. According to Age UK, nearly a third of over-75s are living in poverty or just above the poverty line. If the free over-75 TV licence is scrapped, finding the money needed to pay that additional bill will be impossible for those struggling to make ends meet. At a time when social isolation and loneliness are on the rise, that could mean the loss of their main form of company.
I want to put on the record the views of some of my constituents who got in touch after I issued a consultation for over-75s on this issue. One constituent told me:
“It is often the only company that I have, and I feel as though if it were to be scrapped then it will be penalising those who have already contributed many years towards the country”.
“I, like many other people over 75, have worked and paid tax and insurance for approximately 60 years. Many of these people are on small pensions and we have served the country with dignity and honour. The TV may be the only form of entertainment and to scrap the licence is a kick in the teeth and a disgusting move”.
I agree wholeheartedly with my constituents. The TV licence is an important benefit for pensioners, who suffer disproportionately from loneliness and social isolation. If TV licences are ended or means-tested, millions of older people, almost half of whom consider television their main source of company, will have to pay to keep the little company they do have.
The Government were elected on a manifesto promise to maintain all pensioner benefits, including TV licences. Those who have given so much to our country deserve better than broken Tory promises. When will the Government admit that they must do right by over-75s in this country, stand by their promises and take back responsibility for the TV licence?
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Faisal Rashid). I am pleased to speak in this important debate, which I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson) for securing, and which is timely, considering that a decision is expected next month on the future of free TV licences for over-75s.
We have heard powerful contributions from across the House that have demonstrated how damaging it would be for older people if the Government broke their 2017 manifesto commitment. In my constituency alone, 6,000 older people would lose out if the free TV licence were scrapped. I am sure many in the House will be familiar with Age UK’s deeply troubling report released last month, “Struggling on: Experiences of financial hardship in later life”. It details the shameful fact that 2 million pensioners now live in poverty—a shocking increase of more than 300,000 in the past five years—and that almost 1 million say they are one bill away from financial disaster, unable to find enough money to cover an unexpected bill of £200. If we have almost 1 million older people just a bill away from ruin, how on earth do we expect them to find £150-plus for something they have never had to budget for? Age UK researchers found that scrapping free TV licences could push more than 50,000 pensioners into poverty—and now the Government expect them to find another £150.
I am going to make this slightly personal now. My mum, Betty, is 88 years old. Like many of my constituents, she has lived alone for the last 15 years, and like others, she is involved with various community groups in the week, but that takes up perhaps one or two hours each day. The TV is undoubtedly more than just a box in the corner of the living room; it is a companion and it is entertainment. It is also a great conversation starter when people attend church or lunch club. “Deal or No Deal” keeps brains sharp. The news keeps us connected. “Line of Duty” keeps people on the edge of their seats. Betty, my mum, is in the fortunate position of being able to pay for her TV licence if she had to, but many in Batley and Spen are not.
My mum is one of over 3.6 million older people in the UK living alone, 2 million of whom are over 75. Over 1 million of them say the TV is their main source of companionship. We are talking about hundreds of thousands of people who can go a week without speaking to another human being; people who might not have any interest in subscription-only channels and rely only on terrestrial TV; people for whom the TV is their friend, who might now have to choose between companionship and heating the house. It is a choice that will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable and create profound loneliness.
Thanks to the work of organisations such as Age UK, the Royal Voluntary Service and the Jo Cox Foundation, we have increased our understanding of loneliness by leaps and bounds. We now know that millions of older people are lonely, and the Government have shown leadership and a commitment to ending loneliness by giving us a loneliness Minister, so why on earth would they inflict such a devastating blow on the most vulnerable, while outsourcing the financial burden to the BBC—a burden that they know full well it cannot meet without making cuts elsewhere? The National Union of Journalists has said that such a burden, which would amount to £1 billion by the end of the next decade, would be “catastrophic” for the broadcaster.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful and important speech. Does she agree that what we are talking about is a valuable friend to so many lonely, perhaps elderly, people? We are talking about Auntie: we are talking about the BBC. By effectively cutting its funding, we are damaging the lives of people who listen to the radio, watch television, and depend on quality output from the BBC.
I could not agree more. I am 100% behind what my hon. Friend has said. This is not just about being able to make brilliant programmes that challenge international players such as Netflix, Amazon and Sky; it is about giving the BBC the money to fund fresh talent pipelines and support local news, radio, and educational channels such as CBBC, CBeebies, Bitesize and Writers Room. We must not forget that the BBC is the only body that has an obligation to prove that it has entry-level schemes for people around the country and not just in London, which is important to many working-class young people in particular.
“A disgrace” and “deeply unfair” are two of the ways in which respondents characterised this move, and they are echoed in my inbox by many constituents. I am proud that the Labour party introduced free TV licences for the over-75s in 2000, and I believe it is shameful for the Government now to pass the buck to the BBC. The solution is clear, and it is in the Government’s gift: they should honour the promise that they made in 2017. David Attenborough, our national treasure, who spoke out against the move while acknowledging that he would be in a position to pay if he had to, said:
“One has to remember that there are old people who aren’t earning anything.”
This is an opportunity to do the right thing for millions of people, and I sincerely hope that the Government take it.
Members across the House will know all too well that loneliness and social isolation define the lives of many older people. I see that when I am out knocking on doors in my constituency, and I know that nine years of austerity has made it even worse. Older people are losing the social care support that they need to live active lives, and they also have limited access to leisure and social activities.
Last month, when I visited Age UK in Wandsworth, I spoke to staff and volunteers. They do fantastic work supporting older people in Battersea, and they are all too aware of the growing problem of loneliness and isolation among older people. Research shows that the main source of company for 40% of older people is the television. It was nothing short of cruel for the Government to open the door to ending free TV licences for over-75s and causing yet more loneliness.
The effects of this move would be considerable. It could hit more than 3,500 households in my constituency, and nearly 4 million households across the country. According to research conducted by Age UK, more than 2 million over-75s will be forced either to go without TV or to cut back on other essentials such as heating or even meals if the concession is scrapped, and 50,000 people will be pushed below the poverty line. As with so many Government cuts, disabled people will be severely hit. There are 1.6 million disabled people over 75, many of whom have mobility issues, struggle to leave their homes, and rely on this concession. It was a Labour Government who introduced free TV licences in 2000 as part of the wider support package for our elderly, and for this Government to simply cut them after nine years of austerity is wrong and will only make the situation worse.
It is not just that: as my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson) said, the Government are breaking their manifesto promise to retain TV licence support for the duration of this Parliament. They made that promise in their manifesto, but are breaking it so quickly. As my hon. Friend said in his opening speech, we have got into this mess because the Government are outsourcing their responsibilities for the licence fee concession to the BBC. The BBC is a public broadcaster; it is not there to administer social concessions—it is not its job to do that.
At the same time the Government are squeezing the BBC’s funding, which in effect means that the Government are trying to devolve responsibility and blame for their cuts; the cuts are political choices. The Prime Minister has said that austerity is over, but we on the Opposition Benches know it is not. However, the Government can prevent yet another devastating effect of their austerity programme: they can honour their 2017 manifesto commitment and fund the TV licence concession for over-75s. For the sake of my Battersea constituents and all those who rely on the concession, I urge the Minister not to go ahead with this cut.
It is an honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova), and I agree with all of her comments and those made by others on the Opposition Benches.
I am pleased that we are having this debate today about a welfare provision that is currently received by more than 7,000 older people in Crewe and Nantwich—and I stress that this is a welfare provision. Effectively to outsource responsibility for welfare policy to the BBC, an organisation that is supposed to be independent of Government, is cynical and irresponsible. I am deeply concerned about the impact this decision will have on the older people I represent.
As we have heard, four in 10 older people say that television is their main source of company. Last year, the Prime Minister launched the Government’s first loneliness strategy, saying:
“This strategy is only the beginning of delivering a long and far reaching social change in our country—but it is a vital first step in a national mission to end loneliness in our lifetimes.”
The Prime Minister also set out a number of commitments, including adding loneliness to the ministerial portfolio at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and promising to incorporate loneliness into ongoing policy decisions with a view to a loneliness policy test being included in the Department’s plans. Can the Minister tell the House today whether this decision passed that test?
In addition to my concern that this decision will exacerbate our national loneliness crisis, I am concerned that it comes at a time when progress in tackling pensioner poverty has stalled. The estimated cost of funding this provision is more than the BBC’s current annual spend on all its radio services, and far more than it currently spends on its children’s television services, CBBC and CBeebies. It is difficult to see how the BBC can ever fund this provision with its current level of funding without a significant impact on the range or quality of services it provides.
I am also concerned about the impact this decision could have on the wider UK creative industries. A report in 2015 concluded that the BBC directly invests more than £1.2 billion outside the organisation, benefiting at least 2,700 different creative suppliers. In addition, the skills and experience gained by those working at and with the BBC inevitably go on to benefit the whole sector, which made a record contribution of more than £100 billion to the UK economy in 2017.
Finally, however, I return to the point I made at the beginning of my contribution: the free TV licence for over-75s is a welfare provision. Political decisions regarding the future of any such provision surely rest with the Government and with the Department for Work and Pensions.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s comment, and I am pleased to see that his party is standing with us today in saying that what the Government have done is wrong. I will continue with my comments and come back to that point in a second, if that is okay.
The Conservative party seemed to recognise the important fact that the free TV licence for over-75s was a welfare provision when it made a political promise to voters in its 2017 manifesto. To quote the manifesto directly, the Conservatives promised to
“maintain all other pensioner benefits, including free bus passes, eye tests, prescriptions and TV licences, for the duration of this Parliament.”
But we know that the Government had already set the stage for scrapping free TV licences back in 2015, which raises the question: why did they make that promise in 2017? How many of those other benefits can we expect to see outsourced as the Government continue to shirk their responsibilities to our pensioners?
Perhaps the most concerning factor is that this is just one of the Government’s abject failures to stand up for older people in our communities. Alongside our loneliness crisis and the worrying signs around pensioner poverty, we have had a social care crisis that has simply been ignored. Years after they first promised a social care Green Paper, and after several delays, we still have not seen one. Professor Martin Green, the chair of the International Longevity Centre and chief executive of Care England, described the UK as “completely and institutionally ageist” in December last year. Today, the Government must acknowledge their failings and take the first steps towards restoring trust in politics by committing to honouring their promises to voters and funding free TV licences.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Laura Smith), and I want to begin where she left off. I agree with her that free TV licences were introduced as a welfare policy. That is very much how it was seen at the time, alongside benefits such as free bus passes and free eye tests. The Government’s decision to pass responsibility for this on to the BBC in the knowledge that the BBC would be under this kind of pressure has two impacts. The first is on the BBC itself; the other is on the pensioners who receive the benefit at the moment.
Passing this responsibility on to the BBC is the policy equivalent of a hospital pass. The Government know that the BBC is under pressure. At the moment, the policy costs some £660 million a year, rising to more than £700 million in a couple of years’ time, and asking the BBC to fund this out of its own resources will leave it facing a cut of around one fifth of its budget. As has been said, that is the equivalent of the budgets for BBC Two, BBC Three, BBC Four, the BBC News channel and the children’s channels. This will have a major impact and major implications for our national public service broadcaster at the very moment when the broadcasting and entertainment environment is changing and the BBC is under more pressure than ever from Netflix, Amazon and other providers. The direct impact of this on the BBC is that it will be faced with the awful choice of cutting quality or hitting pensioners.
I am not going to give way, if that is okay, because there is a lot of pressure on time and others want to speak.
The first impact of the policy will be on the BBC itself. The second impact will be on pensioners, and it will be a dual impact—financial and social. The House of Commons Library estimates that there are around 5,600 households in my constituency with someone who is 75 or over. Looking at the options in the BBC consultation, we see that if the free BBC TV licence were restricted to pension credit recipients, 3,390 of those households would lose out, to the tune of £154 a year. If the qualifying age were raised to 80, around 2,200 households would lose out.
It has been said that we should means-test and restrict the benefit to those on pension credit. We are asked, “After all, what about the very wealthy pensioner with a huge estate?” The problem is that, as with changes to any universal benefit, it will not be just the pensioner with a huge estate who loses out. It is estimated that some 40% of pensioners entitled to pension credit do not receive it. If we go down the road suggested, not only the pensioner with the huge wealth will lose out, but some of the poorest pensioners in my constituency and the other constituencies that have been mentioned in the debate.
Then there is the social and cultural impact of cutting much-needed entertainment and information. What is the Government’s justification? The Minister came close to saying in opening that the change was a consequence of the financial crisis and that the Government were ultimately asking pensioners, some of them the lowest-income pensioners in the country, to pay the cost of it 10 years on. That would be unjust and unfair to pensioners in my constituency.
The free TV licence is, after all, a benefit. The Government should fund it and keep the manifesto promise they made in 2017 to maintain it. They have told us that austerity is over. What better way to start proving that than by changing their minds about the TV licence fee?
The debate is not just a party political joust. Let me act for a moment as the Under-Secretary’s political adviser and give him some friendly advice. If the Government go down this road, they will incur the wrath and lasting anger of pensioners, who have come to expect and are used to this benefit after the 20 or so years of its existence. It will do the Government no good to claim at the next election, “It wasn’t us; it was the BBC.” There is no evading the responsibility for the decision. It comes from and is owned by the Government, and the Government will pay the political price if they proceed with this policy.
I think it was Mark Durkan who once described Opposition day debates as a bit like a silent disco. Today’s debate is literally becoming a silent disco as it goes on.
I congratulate the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson) and my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), who have led the proceedings superbly and conveyed the feelings of the over-75s.
I particularly enjoyed the bit of the debate when my good friend the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) rumbled the distortions in the Scottish Conservative party crib sheet. Scottish Conservative Members told us earlier that all the Opposition parties and the Government went through the Lobby arm in arm, suggesting that it was okay to hand over the costs of the free TV licence to the BBC. It would be fair to say that the hon. Gentleman sent the Scottish Tories
Tae think again”.
The hon. Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones) mentioned several quality TV programmes, and got to the heart of the debate. Should those who are 75 or over watch for free quality programmes such as “Pointless”, “Match of the Day” or that great classic, “Poldark”, or will the modern-day Warleggans opposite ask them to pay £154.50 a year to do so? We have heard a muddled position from Government Back Benchers so far. They say that not all those who are 75 or over should get free TV licences. Two Government Back Benchers, one a former Secretary of State, suggested that there are lots of millionaires who are over 75 and should pay the TV licence fee. I guess they know more millionaires than I do, but they gave no figures to show just how many of those aged over 75 are millionaires. The other suggestion was that many over-75s live in households where there are three, four or even more working adults, though again no figures were presented.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Like me, he knows that there are probably no millionaires living in Carntyne or Sandyhills, and that the Minister is entirely out of touch. Does he think it is just a bit strange that, in 2014, when Unionist parties were going round Glasgow telling people how great the UK is, they did not mention anyone losing their TV licences?
That is absolutely true. There was no suggestion that over-75s would lose their TV licences.
Let us examine some figures from some written answers about the cost to the public purse of providing free television licences to people over the age of 75. In the Glasgow South West constituency, the cost to the public purse is £700,000; in the Glasgow city local authority area, it is £4 million; and for Scotland, it is £50.5 million. In other words, BBC Scotland is being asked to find £50.5 million in its budget for the free TV licences.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent point. As the MP for Pacific Quay, I see the value of the high-end jobs based in BBC Scotland. The investment that the BBC has made in the new BBC Scotland channel has created jobs in the wider economy. Does my hon. Friend agree that removing that money from the budget would put at risk that brand-new venture?
I agree, and I have explored that with the shadow Secretary of State. I have very real concerns about the future of the creative industry, especially about employment in the BBC and its capacity to produce good-quality programmes if it is asked to bear the cost of the free TV licence. I sit on the all-party Youth Violence Commission, so I know that there are key benefits to young people finding employment in the creative industries. That is important, so we must continue to advocate and argue for it.
Many hon. Members mentioned loneliness and social inclusion as reasons why people over 75 should receive a TV licence. I agree. We are already seeing the impact of high and rising fuel bills on pensioners—particularly those who live alone. Age Scotland and Age UK report that six in 10 pensioners who live alone have difficulties paying their fuel bills. The number with health conditions and disabilities is increasing. More than four fifths of people aged 85 and over report that their daily lives are limited by a long-term health problem or a disability. Those things have a real impact because there are numerous extra costs associated with them, including taxis to medical appointments, medical equipment, and support and care, so it seems ludicrous that the Government are saying that people aged 75 and over will have to cough up for a TV licence. It really is incredible.
As Opposition Members rightly said, this commitment was in the 2017 Conservative party manifesto, and the Government then allowed the BBC to have a consultation. I did not hear from the Minister—perhaps he will tell us when he winds up—whether the Government will ignore the BBC consultation because they have a manifesto commitment not to take free TV licences off people aged 75 or over. If they will, they need to say so this afternoon.
I welcome the opportunity to debate free TV licences for over-75s. My mam, who I know will be watching, as a lot of pensioners do—I am sure lots of people besides our mams will be watching the Parliament channel—is very passionate about this issue because she is turning 75 in January. To her, this is personal, as she keeps telling me. She feels it has been done deliberately to give her a hard time. It is also personal to the thousands of pensioners who will be worse off if the free TV licence for over-75s is revoked, curtailed or means-tested.
In March, I hosted and addressed the National Pensioners Convention in Parliament for its rally on the BBC’s consultation. I share all of their frustrations about these proposed changes, because I know—I heard this at the rally, from the pensioners—how important their TVs are to their everyday lives. That is why I contributed to the BBC’s consultation in February this year. I have received notification that my letter will be included in the consultation document, so I hope all my points will be taken on board by the BBC and, in turn, listened to by the Government.
The introduction of free TV licences in 2000 for those aged over 75 was one of the many great achievements of the last Labour Government. That is why I and many of my colleagues opposed the Conservative Government’s outsourcing of this social benefit to the BBC as part of its 2015 royal charter. As we have heard, the cost to the BBC is roughly equivalent to the total it currently spends on all of BBC Two, BBC Three, BBC Four, the BBC news channel, CBBC and CBeebies, so I strongly disagree with what the Prime Minister said at last week’s Prime Minister’s questions in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham). She said that
“there is no reason why the BBC, with the money made available to it, is not able to continue that.”—[Official Report, 1 May 2019; Vol. 659, c. 203.]
I am incredulous that the Prime Minister really believes the BBC can fund all of this without detriment. Even to try to do so would be extremely detrimental to the content the BBC is able to offer, and risks causing immense damage to the quality of the service that we all currently enjoy.
I agree with BECTU—the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union—which has said, in opposing the proposals to scrap or limit free TV licences:
“as a welfare benefit, meeting the cost of free licence fees should be the duty of the government”.
It is a disgrace that the Government not only feel able to wash their hands of the responsibility for providing this welfare policy, but are now refusing to rule out breaking the commitment they made in the 2017 Conservative manifesto to maintain free TV licences for the over-75s up to 2022. More than 5,000 households in my constituency are eligible for a free TV licence as they have someone over the age of 75. I am sure that those households will feel let down and unable to trust the Conservative Government if their free TV licence is taken away.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. The BBC is under a lot of pressure in respect of new services, and has introduced BBC Sounds, on-demand services and social media services. These services are less likely to be used by the over-75s, but the Government expect the BBC to introduce these services and take away the benefit for over-75s or take the costs. This cannot stand. Does she not agree that the Government need to pay for this, because the BBC needs to continue to innovate?
Exactly. I am pleased that my hon. Friend has made that intervention to make that point. The BBC needs to innovate, move forward and get better. This move would be to its detriment. It would be a huge backward step in terms of what the BBC would be able to provide in the future, and it just makes no sense.
As we have heard over and over again from Members in all parts of the House, the BBC is much more than just entertainment. Loneliness is blighting the lives of people across the country, with four in 10 people saying that their television is their main source of company. If the Government were serious about tackling the issue of social isolation, they would not be continuing their devastating programme of austerity cuts that affect the most vulnerable in our society. If free TV licences are ended, curtailed or means-tested, millions of older people, who suffer disproportionately from social isolation, will have to pay to keep the little company they have. I feel as though the Minister, his Parliamentary Private Secretary and the Whip are suffering social isolation today in this Chamber, because, as you will notice, Madam Deputy Speaker, they are the only ones here—here because of their roles. I do not think we could have any fewer Conservatives in the Chamber and be allowed to continue!
As with so many of the Government’s policies, this is yet another cruel attack on the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. The Government must be honest with the country: austerity is not over. That is proved by the fact that the Minister said in her opening remarks that this policy change was dreamed up under the original austerity plans of Osborne—or rather, the former Chancellor—and it is just being implemented now. If austerity is really over, why can the Government not just drop this hugely unpopular and unfair cut?
As we have heard, the licence fee concession was guaranteed to be safe until at least 2022 in the Conservative manifesto. The Government are shirking their responsibility, breaking their promises and punishing pensioners. They must stop passing the buck, accept their basic moral duty, and stick by the manifesto commitment on which all Government Members were elected. That is probably why the majority of them are not present to front this up—because they cannot. The Government need to properly fund TV licences for the over-75s, and they need to do it now.
It is an honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson)—and hello to her mum.
Older people across my constituency will be watching this important debate closely. Recent election results have shown that public trust in politicians has fallen to historic lows. I am surprised that the Government have decided to further erode the public trust by breaking their promise on free TV licences for the over-75s. As we have already heard, there was a clear commitment in the 2017 Conservative party manifesto that free licences would be protected until the end of this Parliament, which is currently scheduled for 2022. That promise to our pensioners is now in tatters. The Government have chosen to outsource responsibility and the financial burden of free licences to the BBC—“Let’s blame the BBC.” The BBC cannot cope with the costs and has been going through a consultation process on the future of free licences, and they now look set to be curtailed or completely scrapped by 2020.
The options in the BBC consultation will have a negative impact on households throughout my constituency. Locally, some 2,000 households will lose their free licences if the qualifying age is raised to 80; some 3,000 will lose their free licences if a mean test based on pension credit is introduced; and nearly 5,000 will lose out if free licences are ended entirely. My constituents will be paying the price of the Government’s cynical decision to make a promise that they had no intention of keeping.
The previous Labour Government had many great achievements, including the introduction of free TV licences for the over-75s in 2000. I am proud of that achievement, which is why I join my colleagues on the Opposition Benches to call for more action from the Government. There are currently more than 440,000 over-75s in Scotland, with a projected 49% increase in this age group by 2041. [Interruption.] I am glad the Minister has come over to our Benches after what I just said. Age Scotland has found that four in 10 Scots aged over 50 currently feel financially squeezed. Six in 10 pensioners who live alone are struggling to pay their fuel bills. The Government’s failure to protect free licences will undoubtedly push more older people into financial hardship and fuel the growth of pensioner poverty throughout Scotland.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech, and it is telling that there is no one really on the Government Benches to listen to it. That tells us about their shamefacedness in neglecting this debate and the important points raised. Not only are we facing pensioner poverty, which will only be increased by changes to the concession, but pensioners face significant social exclusion, especially in my constituency. For many, the only way they connect to the world is through television. Surely taking away the concession and putting the financial burden on pensioners will further alienate our pensioner population.
I agree with my hon. Friend. The Government’s failure to keep their promise will also lead to greater loneliness among Scottish pensioners. Age Scotland has highlighted the fact that 100,000 older people feel lonely all or most of the time, with half of over-75s saying that their main form of company is the TV or a pet. I recently visited my dad. I asked him whether I could switch his telly over to another channel, and he said that he only puts the telly on to hear voices. He is 80 years old. Dad, I will make more visits.
Let us not forget that more than half of over-75s do not use the internet and greatly rely on television for news. The Government will therefore be forcing older people throughout Scotland into digital exclusion. We should not be surprised by yet another broken promise from this Government to the elderly. We need only look at the way that the WASPI women have been treated—I will continue to support their campaign for justice. The Government continue to pursue pension credit changes, which will hit the finances of mixed-age couples across Scotland. I call on the Government to learn from their past failures and to take immediate steps to protect free TV licences for the over 75s, or pensioners will rightly conclude that this is a Government that fails to look after their interests and their welfare and they will let you know how they think at the ballot box.
I have spoken to retired members from the Communications Workers Union and Unison. They have worked hard all their life and have earned the right to enjoy their retirement, which for them includes a free TV licence.
We have had a very good debate with some excellent contributions from the Back Benches. Like other hon. Members, I wish to declare an interest at the outset, which is that although I do not qualify for the concession myself—a fact that is well known by the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), as we share a birthday, having been born on the same date in the same year—my mother does. Like the parents of other hon. Members, she is, with her free television licence in hand, a keen follower of the BBC Parliament channel. Like others, she could perhaps afford to pay for her television licence, but she is a miner’s daughter who left school at 14 and worked hard in a factory all her life. It is the sort of concession that is extremely important to someone living on their own at that age. As other hon. Members have pointed out, it can be very lonely for those people. We should bear it in mind that there will probably be many people taking an interest in our proceedings today—I am told that there are often dozens watching the BBC Parliament channel—including many from the over-75 bracket.
We have had some excellent speeches today, including that of the right hon. Member for Maldon, the former Secretary of State. I thought he tried to give the impression that the BBC was delighted with the deal that was struck back in 2015, even though it has been described by others as a hospital pass. I am afraid that nobody really believes that, and deep down, I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman does either. He is entitled, I suppose, to believe that ultimately there should not be a licence fee, which is what he said—he felt that it was unsustainable. However, knowing him as I do, if he wanted that to happen he would probably believe that it should have been in his party’s manifesto, and that it should have been consulted on, because it would be a major change in Government policy. Similarly on this—the potential ending of the free concession on the TV licence for the over-75s—it should have been in the manifesto if the intention was to end the free television licence concession, rather than pretending in the manifesto that it will be maintained rather than outsourced to the BBC.
To some extent I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I remind him that the charter review, which was carried out in 2015-16, was the subject of the biggest public consultation in the history of public consultations in terms of the number of responses that were received. Obviously, the same degree of interest will be generated before the next charter.
We also know what actually happened in relation to the free television licence concession. Basically, as I will say later in my remarks, the BBC hierarchy were taken into a darkened room, rubber hoses were taken out by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, a punishment beating was administered, and they came out making the hostage statement that had been prepared for them, which was that they were delighted with the outcome of these negotiations. I note that the right hon. Gentleman laughs at that, so perhaps my description is not as far-fetched as it might sound.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) pointed out that she could make the shortest speech on parliamentary record if the Government would simply honour their manifesto. We could have done without having this debate today. We would not have needed to be here at all if the Government had actually made real the words of their 2017 manifesto. Instead, as she said, they have used this smoke and mirrors approach to avoid their real responsibilities.
The hon. Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones), who is unfortunately not in his place at the moment, worked for the BBC for many years and often participates in our discussions about the BBC. He said that the 2015 deal with the BBC represented, from the BBC’s point of view,
“all their Christmases come at once”.
Well, I do not think that it was actually the intention of the former Secretary of State that the BBC should walk away from that negotiation thinking that all its Christmases had come at once; in conjunction with the former Chancellor, it was quite the opposite. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the deal on the funding for the future of the BBC, it was wrong in principle to pass on responsibility for this social policy to the unelected, unaccountable and undemocratic BBC.
My hon. Friend is making a very important point about this classic insidious strategy that involves attacking core public services—the strategy of defunding, claiming a service is dysfunctional and then using it as an excuse to privatise. We have seen that happen not just with the pensioner costs being borne by the BBC instead of the state, but also with the defunding of the overseas World Service by the Foreign Office, which resulted in major damage to Britain’s international profile.
My hon. Friend accurately describes what is often the modus operandi of this Conservative Government.
The hon. Member for North Devon also said that the BBC had agreed to continue the concession, but that is not true. In the end, the BBC was forced to agree to take on the concession, but with the right to change it. That is the essence of why we are here today—because the BBC is consulting on doing that, and that agreement was made with the Government.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) was one of many Members who pointed out that her mother watched the Parliament channel and was probably watching our proceedings today. I am sure that she would have enjoyed my hon. Friend’s excellent speech, in which she pointed out the importance of the free TV licence concession to older people.
The hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) said that he had not intended to make a speech and was only prompted to do so by his own intervention on the shadow Secretary of State, in which he asked him whether, in principle, a multimillionaire should receive a free TV licence. In response to that, I asked him during his speech whether a multimillionaire should receive free NHS treatment. It is true of any universal benefit that it is available to all; that is the underpinning principle of a universal benefit. The hon. Gentleman is perfectly entitled to make the argument that the TV licence should not be a universal benefit to over-75s. I disagree profoundly with that argument, but it is a perfectly respectable one and he is entitled to make it; but he is not entitled to palm that decision off on the BBC. That is the essence of the argument today. Just like the former Secretary of State, the hon. Gentleman said that he wants ultimately to abolish the licence fee. Well, if that is what he wants, I hope that he would agree that he should come here as he did today and argue for it, put it in his manifesto, put it to the people at an election and see whether they support his proposal.
We do not have time today to go into this issue in the detail that one would want, but let me say that the NHS is profoundly about risk-sharing. Even a multimillionaire would not be able to afford the huge cost they could face if they had to pay for NHS care for a whole manner of conditions. The TV licence is a set fee of £157, and the hon. Gentleman is arguing that someone who owns vast acres and many mansions should get that for free.
As I said, the hon. Gentleman is entitled to make that argument but is not entitled to palm the decision off on the BBC. That is the essence of our point.
My old university friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (John Grogan)—who is still, I think, the distinguished chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the BBC—said that George Osborne is the villain of the piece. I think that many of us can agree with that, in many ways. I am looking forward to the rapturous coverage of my hon. Friend’s speech in the Evening Standard tomorrow. He said that his majority is currently 249, I think. I am sure that he is going to romp home after his speech today when his older constituents read how he so ably supported them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper) pointed out that for over-75s living alone, TV can literally be a lifeline. She mentioned the amount of money that will be taken out of the pockets of people in her constituency. That is the essential point. If this concession is ended, people in an already hard-pressed community will have to pay in full for their TV licence. That is money that should not be taken out of communities that are struggling at the moment. My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Faisal Rashid) read out some of the quotes from constituents who had written to him and pointed out that they understand what the Government are up to and will not be fooled by the approach they are taking.
My hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) knows a lot about TV. Like my brother, she has appeared as an actor on “Coronation Street”, and she knows what she is talking about when she says that TV is a friend to the lonely. The work that she has continued with the Jo Cox Foundation, which she mentioned, is to be commended. It is a pity that the Government are not rethinking their approach in the light of all the evidence about loneliness and older people.
My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) accused the Government of devolving their political responsibility for the cuts, and she is absolutely right—that is exactly what they are doing. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Laura Smith) pointed out that 7,000 people in her constituency receive this welfare provision, as she rightly called it.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) correctly pointed out that this policy has two effects—on the BBC through the hospital pass that it has been given, and on pensioners in the form of the stealth tax that it will represent if the Government do not act. He also pointed out that 40% of people entitled to pension credit do not receive it, so there will be a double whammy for them. He mentioned the Government’s claim that austerity is over and gave them some political advice. I knew him when he was a political adviser to the former Labour Government, so I would advise the Minister to listen very carefully to what he said, because the Government will pay a political price if they do not.
The hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) quoted “Flower of Scotland” when referring to the fact that I pointed out that his Scottish Conservative colleagues had been completely wrong when they said that we—his party and my party—had not opposed this measure during the passage through this place of the Digital Economy Act. I can add to what I said about the Committee stage. On 28 November 2016, my colleagues and I tabled an amendment on Report in which we also opposed this measure.
My hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) told us about her own representations to the BBC’s consultation. I hope that it will listen to what she said, but more importantly, I hope that the Government will listen, because ultimately that is where the responsibility lies. My hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) rightly said that this was a “Let’s blame the BBC” policy, and that his constituents would pay the price for the Government’s cynical breach of their promise.
I remind the House that we have consistently opposed this underhand stealth tax on older people and the creative sector. We strongly support the excellent campaign that has been run on this by many of my hon. Friends, but also by publications such as the Daily Mirror. It is wrong to outsource social policy to an unelected organisation whose historical mission is to entertain, educate and inform the country, not to decide who should be the beneficiaries of Government social policy. But if the Government believe that that should be part of the BBC’s role, they should have argued for it. They could have put in their manifesto—
Not for the moment.
The Government could have put in their manifesto that they intended to outsource to the BBC—an organisation that is not democratically accountable—a concession intended to help older citizens. They did not do that. They could have consulted civic society, such as the National Pensioners Convention, which my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) mentioned—I am sorry that I cannot give way to her at this point—or Age UK, which said in its briefing for the debate:
“Age UK firmly believes it is the Government’s responsibility to look after vulnerable older people, not the BBC’s.”
Did they do that? No. Did they have the courage to make the argument for cutting the money that pays for free TV licences for the over-75s? No. Instead, they took the craven path of taking BBC management into a dark room, with the cynical intention of offloading their responsibility for helping older people on to our national broadcaster. The sheer brazenness of it is something to behold, even for the Tories. When combined with a promise in the party’s manifesto to maintain a concession that it has already offloaded to a reluctant third party, it is even more brazen. You cannot pass the parcel with social policy like this and call yourself a responsible Government.
The Government say that this is now a matter for the BBC, but they hope and expect the concession to stay. That is cynical. They say that the BBC willingly agreed to take over responsibility for the licence fee concession, but only in the same way that the victim of a robbery agrees to hand over their wallet with a gun pressed against their head. The Government’s whole approach to this has been underhand, aggressive and based on bullying. Many Members here today have been involved in trade unions as members, representatives or officials, so we know what a negotiation looks like, and this was not a negotiation. It is the kind of politics that gives politicians a bad name. If the Conservatives want to rid themselves of the cost of free TV licences, they should have the courage to say so and say that they are doing it.
This is a point of principle for us. We cannot accept a policy that takes responsibility for even a small part of our social security system away from Government and palms it off on an organisation with no accountability to the electorate. That is not principled political leadership. It is craven and cynical political opportunism, made worse by the false promises in the manifesto. Older people are not stupid. They will see this for what it is: a Tory stealth tax on the elderly, and a cynical, despicable ruse to pickpocket our older citizens.
I would like to thank all Members who have brought this debate to life with passion and enthusiasm. We have had some amateur dramatics from Labour Members that would no doubt impress a BBC talent scout; I suggest that those on the Labour Front Bench should audition. It is a testament to the respect that Members across the House have for the BBC and its vital role in our society that we can debate it with such vigour. My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones) was one of many who gave powerful speeches. This subject is particularly important when we consider the value of the BBC to all in our society, and particularly the older people across the United Kingdom who depend on television and radio for companionship and entertainment. They love the BBC, and they value it, as do the Government.
I want to take a moment to respond to some of the considered points raised by Members. A number of Opposition Members have indicated that they have been studying the Conservative party manifesto astutely. I can commend that habit to them. I am delighted, and I hope they read more about the benefits of Conservative policies such as low tax, a free market economy, social justice, keeping unemployment at the lowest level ever and respecting all in our society. There are a number of policies in that document from which Labour Members could learn, so I commend them for having such close regard to the Conservative party manifesto and hope to see more of that.
Reference by Labour Members to pensioners is a little rich, if I may say so, given that the Labour party gave pensioners an increase of 75p in one year when they were in government. No doubt they will excuse me if I am not convinced by their argument. That is relevant when we are comparing Conservative policies to Labour’s manifesto. Given that Labour is of course happy to spend £1 trillion and to get the country into huge debt, perhaps one should not be surprised. Labour’s policy is to centralise and to tax—the state always knows best—but this Government have confidence in the BBC on this subject.
I want to make it clear that this is a decision for the BBC, not for the Government. It is crucial to the BBC’s success that it is independent from Government, which allows it to deliver impartial and independent comment on the events of the day. That is the alpha and omega of what is important for the BBC, and I absolutely cherish it. It is entirely right that the BBC is operationally and editorially independent from Government, and the Government cannot, should not and will not intervene in the BBC’s day-to-day operations.
I think Opposition Members may have forgotten—from hearing them, it appears that they do not recall it—that the Government and the BBC agreed in 2015 that responsibility for the concession for the over-75s would transfer to the BBC in June 2020. We have been clear for some time that the future of the concession is entirely the BBC’s decision. It is for the BBC to decide whether it wants to maintain the current concession or to take a different path.
As I have said, it is a matter for the BBC to make this decision. It was right and proper that it properly consulted the public across a number of months—this was a substantial consultation, and I understand that there were a number of participants and a wide range of options were discussed.
This was a fair deal, and was part of a very fair deal for the BBC. Again, Opposition Members have not recalled that the director-general of the BBC said at the time that the settlement represented
“a strong deal for the BBC”
that provided “financial stability”. Parliament agreed—transferring responsibility for the concession was debated extensively during the passage through the House of the Digital Economy Act 2017. The House will therefore recognise that the Government have been clear about their expectations on this matter.
Again, I want to make it clear that the House agreed in 2017 that it would be for the BBC to decide on the future of this important concession, and it is right that we await the BBC’s decision next month. I very much look forward to seeing how the BBC will continue to support older people across the UK by providing them with companionship and a connection to the outside world.
I am saying that we do not have the result yet. The BBC has not made a decision, so conjecture about what the BBC may or may not decide is just that—pure conjecture. The BBC is due to decide in June, and we will wait to see what it has to say.
Hon. Members have spoken about the importance of the licence fee concession in helping older people who experience loneliness, and I recognise that. The Government take loneliness very seriously, and we recognise that it affects a number of older people. That is why we have taken action. The Government’s loneliness strategy, which was launched by the Prime Minister late last year, is the first such strategy; it is this Government who are acting. As part of the strategy, the Government have committed to a range of policies to help to tackle one of the greatest public health challenges of our time. In my Department alone, for example, the Government have committed to maximising the power of digital tools to connect people, particularly concentrating on digital inclusion for older people and disabled adults. We have also committed to embedding tackling loneliness in our new £400,000 digital inclusion innovation fund, which was launched in September 2018.
We await the BBC’s decision on the licence fee concession, and it is right and proper that it has total independence in making that decision. For the reasons I have given, the Government remain committed to and respect the BBC as one of the essential institutions of this country.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House calls on the Government to honour the Conservative party’s 2017 manifesto promise to maintain free TV licences for the over-75s for the duration of this Parliament by ensuring sufficient funding to do so and, should the BBC propose changes to the concession, to ensure that the proposed changes are subject to parliamentary consent.