(12 months ago)Westminster Hall
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson, and to take part in the debate opened by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones), who gave an outstanding introduction, as usual. She talked about the “not me, guv” Government, and she is right, because their consistent modus operandi with public services is to slash a public authority’s funding and blame it when it is unable to deliver the service. Alternatively, when the public authority has to put up its prices to compensate for the lack of money from central Government, they will attack it politically for doing so. We have seen that happen with failures of local government services, such as the fire service and the police. The epidemic horror of knife crime is apparently nothing to do with the 20,000 fewer police officers, or the cuts to children’s services. Apparently it is all the fault of the Mayor of London. A similar thing can be seen in the debate about the BBC licence fee. The BBC was presented with huge cuts to its budget and was forced to take the blame when it had to charge the licence fee to over-75s. It is part of a consistent practice by the Government that needs to be exposed and resisted.
[Dame Cheryl Gillan in the Chair]
The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) talked about some of the services that would be affected were the BBC to have to take on the whole amount. In total that could be £700 million a year. That would be the cost of BBC 2, BBC 4, BBC News, BBC Scotland and BBC Radio 5 Live and, crucially, local radio stations. Given the crisis in local newspapers, the BBC is in some areas often the only real provider of the quality local news that binds communities together. It can do that because of the licence fee.
There is what is known as an ecosystem in broadcaster funding. Each broadcaster in the UK is funded differently. ITV is funded largely through advertising, with some production work. Sky has a subscription and some production work and advertising. It all knits together particularly well. I must say that, if we move away from the current model to one where the BBC or parts of it had to either use subscription or enter into advertising, I am pretty sure not only that existing channels would be unhappy but that it would damage their operations. That is not to mention the question how we take on the influence of the global giants based on the west coast of the United States.
I, too, have a problem with the size of some of the salaries paid to BBC presenters. I have a particular problem with the use of the word “talent” to describe on-air performers and presenters, whether on radio or TV, because it suggests that the whole attraction of a particular broadcast is based on the individual who presents it. Make-up artists, production designers and junior producers are all talented, and the quality of the programming is vested in all of them and not simply in the person who is in front of the microphone or the camera.
Why on earth did the BBC accept this cut to its budget and the enforced taking on of the licence for over-75s? The simple truth, as other hon. Members have already mentioned, is that it was forced to do so. If we speak to senior BBC management, we hear that they were left in no doubt that this was being forced on them. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly), who was on the Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport with me, called it a “drive-by shooting”. A Treasury Minister—I think this was while George Osborne was Chancellor—told the BBC, “This is the way it’s going to be, so make the best of it.” When BBC management said that they were quite happy with the solution, that was not the case—but what else could they say when they had a gun to their head?
There is also another, more sinister reason. I was on the DCMS Committee when Rona Fairhead, the then chair of the BBC Trust, attended a pre-appointment scrutiny session for the position of chair of the new BBC board. Before she appeared before us, we were informed that after her meeting at Downing Street with the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, she had a private meeting with him without any civil servants present. That was put to her, and she admitted that it was the case. As it happened, the Committee declined to confirm her appointment, but the situation does give rise to the question why the BBC governors at the time did not resist the idea of the over-75s licence fee being deposited on them. Coincidentally, Rona Fairhead was shortly afterwards appointed to the House of Lords and made a member of the Government. I am not suggesting that those two incidents are linked—
My hon. Friend suggests that I should be. It does not give off a particularly pleasant smell to have a part of the Government giving out favours to get a policy through. It stinks, and it ought not to be allowed. Even the perception that a deal was done—because that is one of the possible perceptions—ought not to be allowed.
The BBC licence fee, as we have heard, represents so much more than simply a broadcasting service for older people in particular. I simply ask: if we do not provide the service and social isolation continues, what is the cost then of having to look after more people with more advanced dementia? What is the cost of having to provide social services elsewhere for older people whose quality of life is deteriorating? There are hidden costs involved, and we find once again that the BBC licence fee gives huge value for money in a much broader context than that of simply listening to the radio or watching television.
Break in Debate
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl, in this important debate for pensioners across the country. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for securing the debate and the 170,000 people who signed the online petition calling on the Government to protect free TV licences for those aged 75 and over. They join the 600,000 people who signed Age UK’s petition calling for the Government to act on this issue.
There is a real sense of public anger at the injustice of the decision to end free TV licences for all those aged 75 and over, with many saying that they will not pay. I have felt that public anger in my constituency. Many of my constituents cannot understand why the Government refuse to stand up for pensioners. I have spoken to constituents who will be directly affected by the Government’s inaction, coming from the more than 3,000 local households set to lose a free TV licence.
The Government have betrayed my constituents, along with the pensioners of this country. There was a clear promise in the 2017 Conservative party manifesto that free TV licences would be protected until the end of this Parliament, yet the Government chose to outsource the responsibility and the financial burden of free TV licences to the BBC. They have successfully shifted the blame on to the BBC for the decision to end free TV licences for all those aged 75 and over. However, the Government must take responsibility. They made a cynical promise to pensioners that they had no intention of keeping. I have repeatedly spoken out in Parliament to highlight the fact that the Government’s promise to our pensioners now lies in tatters. When the Labour party held an Opposition day debate on this issue, the Government Benches were all but empty. The Government did not dare vote against Labour’s motion, because they know that they have betrayed the trust of pensioners across the country.
When I confronted the Prime Minister on the issue at Prime Minister’s questions, her answer could not have been weaker. She told the BBC to “think again”, but it is the Prime Minister, whose days are numbered, who must think again. She was the architect of the 2017 Conservative manifesto, which contained a clear promise to protect free TV licences for those aged 75 and over. In one of her last acts as Prime Minister, she should live up to the pledge she gave when she first entered Downing Street to tackle the burning injustices in our society. She should protect our pensioners by ensuring that free TV licences for all those aged 75 and over are maintained.
As things stand, from June 2020 free TV licences will be restricted to those aged 75 and over who claim pension credit. The BBC claims that this will ensure that the poorest pensioners are protected, but its own analysis suggests that just 11% of the poorest households would keep their free TV licence if it was linked to pension credit, and that the poorest 10th of over-75s would have to spend more than 2% of their total income on the TV licence.
There are also clearly issues with the take-up of pension credit. As has been mentioned, the DWP’s latest estimates highlight the fact that two out of five people aged 75 and over who should be claiming pension credit have not done so. Independent Age found more than £7 million of pension credit going unclaimed in my constituency of Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill alone. If there is £7 million in my constituency, how much more is out there? However, the Government appear to be doing little to encourage greater take-up of pension credit among those aged 75 and over.
Let us be clear that the decision to restrict free TV licences will increase both poverty and, more importantly, loneliness among our pensioners. One in four over-75s say that the TV is their main source of company, after having brought up their family and then being left alone. I know that. I lost my mother last year, and I know that my dad depends so much on the TV nowadays.
This decision will do nothing to stop the continuing rise of pensioner poverty across the UK. We are often told by the Government that they are on the side of pensioners, yet they still refuse to act to protect pensioners’ interests. It is time for the Government to stop blaming the BBC and start taking responsibility. It is time for them to keep their promise and protect the TV licence for the over-75s.
I think the hon. Gentleman is very much mistaken on my support for HS2. [Laughter.]
The point that I want to make is not so much about Gary Lineker; it is just the fact that the BBC operates in a commercial environment. If it does not pay its talent a commercial wage—many of them actually earn less than the commercial wage—it will lose that talent to other organisations, and then people will switch off the BBC and it will lose viewers.
I remind colleagues that there is a possibility of votes in the main Chamber during our proceedings, in which case I will suspend and we will have to return. This will be the last speech from hon. Members on the Back Benches, after which we will move on to the Front-Bench spokespeople.