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TV Licences for Over-75s

Volume 662: debated on Thursday 4 July 2019

The Government are disappointed with the BBC’s decision on the licence fee concession for the over-75s. Taxpayers want the BBC to use its substantial licence fee income in an appropriate way, to ensure that it delivers for UK audiences. The Government expect the BBC to consider further ways to support older people, and I recently met the BBC management to discuss what more it could do.

The BBC is not a benefits agency. Both Tory leadership contenders have condemned the proposal to remove free TV licences from the over-75s, and stated that that must be reversed. The director-general has rightly said that the Government are responsible for the TV licence proposal, and that he would be open to conversations about reversing it. Will the Secretary of State tell the House when further conversations may happen, and when will that benefit cut be reversed?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the decision to transfer that responsibility to the BBC was taken in 2017 by this House in the Digital Economy Act 2017. I assure him that conversations about what more we expect of the BBC will continue, and we expect it to do more.

Without hiding behind the BBC again, will the Minister explain to my constituent, who rang up incensed, why his 86-year-old neighbour, who is a veteran and relies on his TV for company, should have his TV licence taken away? Last week the Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Ellwood), who opened the debate on Armed Forces Day, thought that was unfair—does the Minister?

Nobody is hiding behind the BBC. Legislation has now provided that this decision should be for the BBC to take, and if the hon. Lady listens to the BBC, that is exactly its message—it is its decision and responsibility. She makes a good point about veterans, and I have raised that issue with the BBC. I expect it to be able to do more for veterans, and it should.

In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) the Secretary of State referred to 2017, but in that year his party’s manifesto stated that there would be no cut to free TV licences. On Monday, people in Duke Street were infuriated by that move. There are 6,500 over-75s in my constituency. Will the Minister come and visit and tell them why he is planning to cut their free TV licence?

I am happy to send the message that I share their disappointment, and I have made that clear on a number of occasions. In fact, we can go back further than 2017, because in 2015 the arrangement was made with the BBC that this responsibility would transfer to it as part of the charter settlement. The BBC has known about this for some time, and it had the opportunity to prepare for it. In our view, it needs to do better.

In my constituency of Canterbury, there are some 6,250 households at risk of losing their free TV licence. Why are the Government failing to live up to their responsibility to older residents? Is it simply the case that they are entirely complacent about receiving their support in any upcoming general election?

No, I do not accept that for one moment. The Government’s record on support for older people has been remarkable. We have been able to provide £1,600 more per year for those on the state pension than was managed in 2010 under a Labour Government. We have done more on loneliness than any Government before us. We introduced a Minister with responsibility for tackling loneliness. For the first time, we have a strategy on loneliness and we have put our money where our mouth is with £20 million of investment. I am afraid the Labour party in government did none of those things.

If it was a decision for the BBC, why did the Government put it in their manifesto? Does the Minister not think he has a moral obligation to make up the difference if the BBC has a problem? Many pensioners suffer from loneliness and for them the BBC is a lifeline to the world.

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of loneliness, and I will repeat the points I have just made. The Government have done a huge amount to combat this very substantial social problem. The truth is that we still expect the BBC to do better in this area, but it is the BBC’s responsibility. The responsibility was transferred to the BBC in 2017, after it was agreed with it in 2015. The BBC itself has made it clear that this is now its responsibility.

In the London Evening Standard on 11 June, there was a very interesting headline on page two, stating:

“Tax campaigners defend axing of free TV licences for wealthy OAPs”.

Wealthy old-age pensioners? Will the Secretary of State join me in condemning the slippery language used by the editor of the London Evening Standard, an architect of this debacle? My 5,000 pensioners who risk losing their free TV licence in Cambridge are not wealthy.

As the hon. Gentleman says, wealthy pensioners are not the only ones who will lose their TV licence. That is certainly right. That is exactly why we continue to say to the BBC that it needs to do better than it is doing at the moment.

There are some very interesting statistics that I should perhaps share with the House at this point. Last year and this financial year, the BBC has been sharing with the Government the cost of the over-75 licence concession. Last year, the cost of the concession was £677 million. The Government paid £468 and the BBC paid £209 million. This financial year, the cost is £700 million. The Government paid £247 million and the BBC paid £453 million. The cost of the concession as the BBC intends to operate it from 2020 onwards is, by its estimate, £260 million. That is substantially less than the BBC is paying towards to the concession this financial year. The BBC would say, and I would agree with it, that it is able to supply a good service this year while still paying £453 million towards that concession. That seems to be an interesting statistic.

Why not get rid of TV licences altogether for everyone and force the BBC to compete for its revenues like every other broadcaster? The supermarket equivalent would be forcing everyone, under threat of criminal sanction, to spend £150 in Tesco even if they shop at Aldi, Sainsbury’s, Co-op or elsewhere.

I cannot agree with my hon. Friend. In previous years we looked carefully at whether this is the right way to fund the BBC, and the conclusion reached was that it is. The Government have no plans to change that fundamental funding model.

Does the law allow the BBC to discriminate? If it does, should it not be the BBC that is responsible for bringing prosecutions, not the state?

My right hon. Friend raises an interesting point. As I have said, it is of course a matter for the BBC to decide how this concession should be structured. It is open to the BBC, as it has demonstrated, to choose a model that does not offer a free TV licence to every over-75 year old. The question of enforcement is an interesting one that we will go on considering. I would hope very much that the BBC will take seriously the comments of my right hon. Friend and others about how this obligation should be properly enforced in the future.

Perhaps the most difficult part of growing old is the loss of a husband, wife or partner—the person you have shared your every day and every thought with, often over a lifetime. There are nearly 600,000 widowed men and 1.5 million widowed women over the age of 75. An estimated seven out of 10 widows and widowers will lose their free TV licence. That is nearly 1.5 million people who have lost their life partner who will now be stripped of the comfort of their television by this Conservative Government. Can the Secretary of State live with that?

The decision that has been made is to transfer that responsibility to the BBC. How the BBC chooses to exercise its responsibility is, as it and we say, its responsibility. The point that the hon. Gentleman makes is a fair one, and it needs to be heard by the BBC as it decides what more it can do to help those who are in particular need or are particularly vulnerable. That is exactly the conversation that I am having with the BBC at the moment, and that we will continue. The decision for the hon. Gentleman is how he intends to back up the pledges that he has so far made to take that responsibility back to the taxpayer, and how he intends to fund that change.