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Covid-19: Television Licences

Volume 803: debated on Tuesday 2 June 2020

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the restrictions in place to address the COVID-19 pandemic, what plans they have to reconsider the decision on the provision of free TV licences for people aged over 75.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

My Lords, the BBC is responsible for the over-75 licence concession—not the Government. The Government are disappointed with the BBC’s decision to restrict the concession to those in receipt of pension credit. Recognising the exceptional circumstances posed by Covid-19, the BBC board has decided to delay the new start date of its policy on over-75s until 1 August; the BBC will keep his issue under review.

Does the Minister accept that it is the Government who are forcing many hundreds of thousands of old people to stay at home for many more months and that, by agreeing to delay the implementation to the beginning of August, they have already accepted the principle that the TV is vital for many old people for information about Covid-19 and other things as well for entertainment? Since August is less than two months away, will the Minister and the Government get around the table with the BBC and decide to continue this delay indefinitely, or are they willing to condemn many hundreds of thousands of old people to even greater isolation and misery?

The noble Lord seeks to protect the health of our nation and that particularly includes old people. As I understand it, they are especially vulnerable to the impacts of Covid-19, so staying at home is a health issue. The Government are regularly around the table with the BBC and the other public service broadcasters; my right honourable friend the Secretary of State said recently that, should we be in a similar situation at the beginning of August, she very much hoped that the BBC would show the same flexibility on this issue as it has shown already.

Can the Minister tell us from where the 20% of pensioners aged over 80 who live in poverty will find the money for a licence fee? Will it be from food, or from heating in winter? I am sure that the phrase “pension credit” is forming in her head, but 1.2 million people who are eligible for that do not get it. The free TV licence is a universal benefit. Do we not need more of those, rather than more conditionality?

The noble Baroness is right that the words “pension credit” were forming in my mind. We are clear that we want everyone who is eligible to claim this benefit to do so. People should claim what they are entitled to. We also know that the BBC is working with older people’s groups and charities to try to design the simplest possible payment system for the over-75s and the over-80s, as the noble Baroness referred to specifically.

My Lords, while it is absolutely clear to everyone that the BBC is reneging on its commitment to free TV licences for our elderly, will the Minister remind the House all that the Government are doing to assist the over-75s and to combat loneliness?

I have the great honour of being the Minister for Loneliness—the only one, I think, in the world. We have recently launched a new campaign trying to address stigma around talking about loneliness. We have announced dedicated funding to combat loneliness both for smaller organisations and for those with a national reach. We have created a new Tackling Loneliness Network, which we hope will bring a real energy to this important issue; we will shortly meet its stakeholders across business, the voluntary sector and the public sector.

The inexorable rise of the streaming giants and the sharp reduction in the payment of licence fees means that the new funding arrangement for the BBC needs to be publicly discussed. Will the Government reconsider their rejection of the Communications and Digital Select Committee’s recommendation of setting up a BBC funding commission, which would allow this to happen and make the whole process of the future funding of the BBC more transparent?

The noble Viscount raises an important point about the transparency and suitability of both the funding arrangement and the regulatory framework. The Government are open to considering all these points and look forward to doing so in more detail when we receive Ofcom’s upcoming report, but there is currently no plan to set up a funding commission, as he suggests.

My Lords, the Minister tells us that she is the Minister for Loneliness. Does she understand that over 40% of the over-75s live alone, and that by definition they suffer loneliness? During the Covid pandemic, almost all of them, nearly 2 million people, rely on television for their main means of company. Given that the Government are already rightly spending billions to protect those in work by payments to private companies, what is to stop the Government, in a fair and balanced fashion, protecting the over-75s by doing a deal with the BBC to extend the concession, which lasts until August, until at least the end of the year?

I can only repeat that it is the responsibility of the BBC to decide whether or not to extend the concession. This point was debated extensively in both Houses under the Digital Economy Act, and that responsibility remains with the BBC. As I said earlier, we hope that it will remain flexible on this point.

I am sure the Minister agrees that the BBC has once again proved invaluable at a time of crisis. Does she not accept that when jobs in the creative sector are in such severe jeopardy, allowing the continued loss of funds for the BBC will severely harm any recovery there? Does she accept that this policy actually penalises the licence fee payer twice over, both in paying the concession and in putting the existence of the programmes that they value—and indeed rely on—at risk?

The noble Baroness is absolutely right that the BBC has played a vital role in informing, entertaining and particularly, most recently, educating the nation during this pandemic. However, I do not accept that we are putting the creative industries at risk. As she knows, this Government have really prioritised the growth of the creative industries. We work extremely closely with them and unquestionably see their value to this country.

Does the Minister not agree that the great social value of television has been revealed dramatically during this period, particularly of course for vulnerable older people? Would it therefore not be right and fair for the Government to bear the cost of free television licences, not the BBC, which has to operate in an increasingly competitive environment?

The noble and right reverend Lord will be aware, as I said earlier, that this has been decided. The transfer of responsibility for the licence fee was made in the Digital Economy Act and debated at length in both Houses in 2017.

My Lords, the Government have clearly made a complete mess of their blatant attempt to cut the BBC by making it responsible for their welfare policy. Does not the delayed start until 1 August simply emphasise that? Given the scale of their other contributions to offset the impact of Covid-19, as others have said, what precisely do the Government gain by removing free TV from older pensioners?

The Government are not removing free TV from older pensioners. The Government struck a deal with the BBC over the licence fee settlement in 2015 which was described by the director-general— the noble Lord, Lord Hall—as providing the BBC with financial stability. That is how we understood the situation and continue to do so.