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Kevin Brennan

MP Main Page: Kevin Brennan (Labour - Cardiff West)

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Kevin Brennan Excerpts
Monday 15th July 2019

(12 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara (Argyll and Bute) (SNP) - Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 6:44 p.m.

As always, Dame Cheryl, it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair. I thank and congratulate all 15 Members who have made speeches in this important debate. In the confessional spirit that has been prevalent this afternoon, I put it on the record that I, too, am a former employee of the BBC—I was there for about a decade. However, I have already spoken extensively about my time at the BBC, so in the time available I will concentrate on the issue that has dominated our debate: the decision to means-test the licence fee for those aged 75 and above.

In the SNP’s opinion, it is absolutely outrageous that the UK Government have sought to shift a welfare policy decision to the BBC, thereby not only shirking their responsibility to support our older citizens, but shamefully breaking their manifesto commitment on TV licences for the over-75s, as we have heard so many times this afternoon. Their 2017 manifesto made an explicit promise—on page 66, to be exact—that they would

“maintain…pensioner benefits, including free bus passes, eye tests, prescriptions and TV licences, for the duration of this parliament.”

I am glad that so many Conservative Members recognise that, particularly the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman).

I urge the Minister to explain why the Government are breaking their promise, and to commit to ensuring that our elderly population will not suffer because of such a damaging and ill-thought-out proposal. SNP Members add our voices to the ever-growing numbers, in all parts of the House and the length and breadth of these islands, who are calling for the UK Government to reverse their decision and stop abdicating responsibility by putting it on the BBC, particularly at this time of rising pensioner poverty. I wholeheartedly agree with the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) and the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) that the Government were completely wrong to impose such a deal on the BBC in the first place—but then to criticise the BBC for doing what it was instructed to do simply beggars belief.

At a time when more and more of our older people are struggling to make ends meet, in many cases as a direct result of Tory austerity cuts, it would be a grave injustice to remove the free TV licence and expect older people to conjure up another £150 from somewhere. Scotland’s First Minister recently signed a letter to the Prime Minister urging the UK Government to guarantee that free TV licences for the over-75s would be protected. That letter was signed by every leader of Scotland’s major political parties, with the exception of Ruth Davidson of the Scottish Conservatives. Scotland’s First Minister and the other party leaders signed the letter because they know that the UK Government already provide one of the lowest state pensions in the developed world. Our older people need more financial support, not less, particularly at a time of rising costs.

Following its consultation process, the BBC announced that from June 2020 only those people who are aged 75 or above and in receipt of pension credit will continue to receive free TV licences. However, I argue strongly that means-testing on the basis of pension credit has been shown to be fundamentally flawed. I take issue with the assertion of the corporation’s director-general, Tony Hall, and its chairman, Sir David Clementi, that using pension credit means that the pensioners in most need will be protected. That is simply not the case.

It is currently estimated that four in 10 pensioner households eligible for pension credit do not receive it, for one reason or another. Just last month, the charity Independent Age found that more than 1 million pensioner households across the UK are living in poverty because the Government failed to act on unpaid pension credit, and that since 2017 the Government have benefited from £7 billion in unclaimed pension credit. As a result, there will be hundreds of thousands of poor pensioners who should qualify but do not, and who will now have to find an extra £150 to pay for a TV licence.

What about those pensioners who just miss out on qualifying for pension credit? They are hardly living the life of Riley, and by no stretch of the imagination could they be considered wealthy, yet they will be hurt most by the decision. Perhaps Lord Hall and Sir David Clementi would care to reflect on the fairness and protection that they argue is being afforded to this group of people. After years of Tory austerity, and the deep financial uncertainty caused by Brexit, the last thing that our older people need is the extra burden of finding the money for a TV licence.

I commend the words of the hon. Members for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan), for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), and for Lincoln (Karen Lee). The testimonies of their constituents could have come from any one of the 650 constituencies across these islands, because that is the reality. They display the depth of feeling among our constituents.

It is estimated that in Scotland this Tory TV licence fee will cost £40 million, with a quarter of a million over-75s set to lose out. Age Scotland also estimates that around 76,000 pensioners in Scotland do not receive pension credit, even though they are eligible for it. We in the SNP wholeheartedly agree with the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union, which has said that the over-75s’ licence is a welfare benefit and that it is the Government’s responsibility to pay it, and nobody else’s. Like BECTU and others, SNP Members will continue to call out this Government and the shameful subcontracting of their welfare responsibility to the BBC.

Stripping pensioners of their free TV licences is unacceptable. It will add pressure to already stretched pensioner budgets, and it will cause worry and angst among our poorest and most vulnerable people, who will be forced to make difficult choices about what they can and cannot afford. The responsibility for the TV licence lies with the UK Government. As we have heard so many times today, welfare policy should not be decided by the BBC and we strongly urge the Government to recognise that it is their responsibility to our older population to fully fund these licences.

I will finish by going right back to the beginning of the debate and the speech by the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones). The words she used really resonate and the Government should reflect on them: she said that what the Government are doing to the over-75s really is the most mean-spirited of Government cuts.

Kevin Brennan Portrait Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab) - Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 6:51 p.m.

I thank everyone who has spoken in this debate and I join those who have congratulated my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) on her speech. Once again, she gave an object lesson in how to open a debate and how to deliver a parliamentary speech, with her customary lucidity and gusto backing up the powerful facts she cited. She is a wonderful Chair of the Petitions Committee and long may she be able to introduce these debates on our behalf, setting the tone so well.

However, there was something that my hon. Friend said that I disagreed with. She said that she thought that this Government were the Arthur Daley of public administration. That is very unfair on Arthur Daley, Del Boy and others, because I cannot imagine for one moment that they would have tried to pull off a scam such as the over-75s scam that the Government have tried to pull off by outsourcing social policy in this way.

My hon. Friend also pointed out the extra costs that older people face, in relation to extra heating and so on, which I thought was a new and original point in the debate, although it is not often taken into account when discussing the importance of free TV licences for the over-75s. Also—I think people should take note of this—she quite rightly predicted that the scammers, conmen and fraudsters will soon move in on vulnerable older people when free TV licences for the over-75s are ended if the Government do not reverse this very poor decision.

The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) revealed a new and interesting fact, because we had not known that in years gone by he was part of the BBC’s talent, and that he had even been big in India, which I had not anticipated. As for the substance of his speech, he seemed to suggest that advertising should perhaps be more used widely in the BBC as a funding model. I am afraid that is something that Labour Members disagree with.

My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) quite rightly pointed out that free TV licences for the over-75s is a social policy, and that if the Government want to change a social policy they should have the guts and commitment to make the argument themselves and put it in their manifesto. They should argue the case in Parliament themselves, take it to a vote here, have a consultation with the public—all the things that every Government should do when changing social policy. They should do that themselves, rather than taking BBC executives into a darkened room with a rubber hose and duffing them up until they agree to do this, under the threat of future Treasury cuts to BBC funding.

Even having done that, which was wrong in itself, for the Government subsequently to put into their 2017 general election manifesto the proposition that the free concession would be retained, when they had already outsourced it to the BBC, really was an example of the most egregious use of a general election manifesto—no wonder the manifesto went down like a lead balloon.

The right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey)—unfortunately, he is no longer in his place—who is a distinguished former Minister in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, rightly referred to the wider work that the BBC does in our cultural and social life. To the many things he listed, I would add podcasts, which are becoming more and more important. I have just listened to “Shreds”, a brilliant podcast about the so-called Cardiff Five and the murder of Lynette White. I recommend it to right hon. and hon. Members as a fine example of public service broadcasting, as we used to call it, although I suppose in this case it is public service streaming or downloading. Brilliant content is being made available to licence fee-payers by the BBC in a way that is new and innovative.

The right hon. Member for Wantage also asked, quite clearly and straightforwardly, whether reforming free TV licences for the over-75s should be the BBC’s role, and he said that the answer is no. I therefore say to the Minister who is here today—the Minister for Digital and the Creative Industries, the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James)—that the right hon. Gentleman, a former Minister, made that absolutely clear. He was even a Minister in the Department when this decision was made, but he is absolutely clear that this is not a role that the BBC should play. That is her own right hon. Friend making that statement.

My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), who unfortunately is also no longer in her place, mentioned her own 89-year-old mother—indeed, I have an 89-year-old mother who also relies on her television licence. My hon. Friend pointed out the amount of pension credit that remained unclaimed just in her own constituency of Swansea East, which is one of the more deprived parts of the country. She said that there was £6.5 million of unclaimed pension credit for her constituency alone, which prompts a question: what will happen if pension credit is claimed by a greater proportion of the population, as we all hope it will be, than is the case currently?

If that happens, the Government might find that, as a result of this policy, more people are claiming pension credit, which would be a good thing, but the Government would have to pay it. However, the increase would also mean an extra burden on the BBC, because of the greater number of free TV licences. I put down a written question to the Government to ask what estimate they had made of that effect and the answer was, “None whatsoever”. It is as if they are making all this up on the back of a fag packet as they go along.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) described the TV licence as “archaic”. I simply say to him, because he has obviously read and even swallowed some books on market economics along the way, that there are some things in life that are the opposite to the usual rule: they work in practice but not in theory. That is the case with the TV licence, which works in practice and has broad public support, as is clearly evidenced in the statistics that have been cited. It does not work in any economic theory textbook, but so what? It actually works very well and very effectively.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karen Lee), who unfortunately is also not here for the wind-ups, told us about the positive response that there had been to the petition in her constituency. The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), who does a lot of work in this place on issues affecting the BBC, described it as “much-loved” but an “anomaly”. In some ways, he is echoing some of the sentiments that I would like to express from the Opposition Front Bench. However, he also admitted that the BBC had not really been funded to pay for the free TV licence concession and that the commitment in the Government’s manifesto up until 2022 should be honoured.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) mentioned, very importantly, the impact that this change could have on people with dementia, and the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) said that it was “inevitable”—I think I am quoting him directly here—that the BBC

“would opt out at the first possible opportunity.”

The Government are trying to maintain the fiction that they did not need to opt out at the first opportunity, and that the BBC should continue to run this concession despite the fact that the funding has not been supplied.

My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) pointed out that the outsourcing of blame is a speciality of this Government, and that this is a fine example. He also made the very important point that “talent” should not be used to refer just to on-air employees of the BBC. As we in the Opposition like to say, talent is everywhere; opportunity is not. We are here to try to extend opportunity much more widely than it currently is.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis) quoted research from Cardiff University, and being from Cardiff, I have to accept it at face value as a very good piece of research. He made some points about BBC bias and so on, but I would say to him that the BBC is still the most trusted source of news among the public, and is also subject to Ofcom regulation and has to meet standards. He is right that we should hold the BBC to account but, imperfect as it is—I know that he accepts this point—it still plays a role in maintaining the gravitational pull of standards in this country’s broadcasting that is rarely matched in other parts of the western world.

We all give my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) our sympathies for the loss of his mother. He appealed to the Prime Minister, even at this late stage, to act on this matter. I would say to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) that he should not put everybody from Oxbridge in the same category. There are working-class Oxbridge graduates—I include myself in that category, as well as the final speaker, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (John Grogan). He was at Oxford at the same time as me, and also came from a working-class background, breaking through the typical mould that my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton described. As usual, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley talked a lot of sense about the future of the BBC.

At the moment, the BBC is under attack from a number of different directions, and it is very sad that on the issue of the over-75s licence fee, the Government are joining that attack. It is sad that they are joining in the predictable attacks that come from some sections of the tabloid press, often owned—as my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich South said—by a small number of individuals. The Government should do more to stand up for the BBC and support it, not try to outsource their responsibilities to our national broadcaster. As Joni Mitchell once said,

“you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”

We should cherish the BBC as a uniquely British institution that works very effectively. Yes, let us hold it to account and try to improve it, but let us not use it as a whipping boy because of the Government’s own failure in their social policies. Finally, the Government’s handling of the over-75s licence fee is a disgrace. With the change of leadership, perhaps now is an opportunity for a change of mind.

The Minister for Digital and the Creative Industries (Margot James) Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 7:03 p.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) on securing this important debate on these three petitions. I agree with the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), that the hon. Lady’s opening speech was an excellent account of so many of the issues that drove those petitions, and her own response to them.

Before I address some of the issues that have been raised, I will echo the huge positivity from across the Chamber about the role, importance and value of the BBC. We in this country are extremely fortunate to have the BBC, for all the reasons that right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned; it delivers an enormous public service, with hugely successful productions such as “Bodyguard”, “Strictly Come Dancing” and the “Today” programme. I would add a recent one, “Gentleman Jack”, which is absolutely fantastic.

Break in Debate

Margot James Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 7:06 p.m.

I am glad my right hon. Friend loved it. It was a series that illustrated the importance of diversity in the BBC: a regional series set in Halifax, written by a BAFTA-winning director and playwright, Sally Wainwright—also from Yorkshire—and co-produced by BBC Studios and Lookout Point. I wish that such a series had been aired when I was growing up in the 1970s.

Of course, it is the licence fee that delivers that public value and allows the BBC to reach UK audiences everywhere, from the TVs in our homes to all the gadgets and devices that we carry around with us. The BBC is also required to represent and cater for all sorts of niche interests that may well not attract the attention of a channel that depends on advertising, or even broad-based subscription revenues, for its identity and position. The BBC received close to £3.7 billion in licence fee income last year, and its unique position of providing distinctive content in under-served genres to under-served audiences is vital.

Right hon. and hon. Members will know that we carefully considered the question of the licence fee as part of the BBC charter review process in 2015 and 2016. We found that independent research demonstrated a great deal of public interest in the licence fee. Some 60% of people surveyed backed it as the least worst option, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) mentioned. For 60%, the licence fee was the mode of payment that they most supported, with fewer than 3% backing either an advertising model or a subscription-based model. Those figures are quite powerful, which is why we have committed to maintaining the licence fee funding model for at least the duration of this new 11-year charter period, which will bring us to the end of 2027. That provides the BBC with the funding certainty that it needs to thrive and deliver its mission and public purposes.

The media landscape is changing all the time, and citizens and consumers have more choice than ever before, particularly in the form of subscription-based services. However, the BBC’s content remains hugely popular. Some 91% of adults in the UK use its services each week, spending an average of 18 hours watching, listening to or using those services. Such figures demonstrate the continuing importance of the BBC in the fast-changing and increasingly competitive media landscape. In addition, the BBC directly invests over £2 billion in the UK’s creative industries each year, and invests billions of pounds in the digital and high-tech industries that support content creation and distribution. It is therefore a very important contributor not only to our shared experiences and public life but to the economy.

I now turn to the over-75s’ licence fee concession. Of course, the Government recognise the importance of television to people of all ages, particularly older people. We have heard a lot today from Members who, having talked to their constituents, have recounted what we all know: that the television can provide a lifeline to older people, particularly those who are recently bereaved or live alone, as a way of staying connected with the world. Right hon. and hon. Members have made that point clear, and I wholeheartedly agree with those sentiments.

However, if we cast our minds back four or five years to the time of the 2015 funding settlement, the Government had an expectation that all public services and public institutions had to find some economies and play their part in reducing the budget deficit overall and bringing some stability and sense to the public finances. Older people, like everybody else, mostly agreed with the need to do so, although they did not necessarily agree with all the means that were identified as routes towards restoring that stability and sense. However, it was agreed with the BBC that the responsibility for that concession would transfer to the BBC by June 2020.

In return, the Government closed the iPlayer loophole so that more people paid the licence fee. Many more people now pay the licence fee, leading to an uptick in the BBC’s revenues. The Government also committed to increase the licence fee in line with inflation during the charter period, which for the first time gave the BBC a more sustainable income for the future. At the time, the Government and the BBC agreed it was a fair deal. Indeed, the director-general said:

“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.”

Parliament debated the issue extensively in passing the Digital Economy Act 2017 and approving the transfer of the legal responsibility for the concession to the BBC. I was a Whip in that Government, and I can tell Members—I am sure you will remember this too, Dame Cheryl—that we had to compromise greatly on a number of very contentious issues, but this was not one of them.

Kevin Brennan Portrait Kevin Brennan - Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 7:11 p.m.

Rubbish!

Margot James Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 7:11 p.m.

I will take an intervention from the hon. Gentleman if he likes.

Kevin Brennan Portrait Kevin Brennan - Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 7:11 p.m.

I will not let the Minister get away with that absolute rubbish. We tabled extensive amendments in Committee and on Report and opposed the proposal throughout. It was a highly contentious matter.

Margot James Hansard

To be fair to the hon. Gentleman, he has a fair point—that the matter was contentious—but the proposal got through without the Government having to make compromises, unlike other things. For example, Members might remember the proposals to change Sunday trading laws. That is one of several examples of legislation that the Government had to change because opposition was so great. This transfer of responsibility did not attract the same level of opposition. Enough Members voted it through and Parliament therefore approved it, which is something we have to bear in mind. The responsibility was therefore passed to the BBC with parliamentary approval, and it was accepted by BBC governors and the director-general, no less.

I am willing to take more interventions on the other points that I have addressed, but I will turn to perceived bias and the BBC. Under its royal charter, the BBC has a duty to deliver high-quality, impartial and accurate news coverage and content. Members have already mentioned that 90% of the public value the news coverage of the BBC and believe in its impartiality. As with all other broadcasters, the BBC is subject to the Ofcom broadcasting code, which includes requirements on accuracy and impartiality. Ofcom is now firmly established as the new external regulator for the BBC. It will act to safeguard the high standards of impartiality that already exist at the BBC.

The Government are clear that the licence fee is the right funding model. It is clear that Ofcom’s robust approach to regulation will safeguard the impartiality that the BBC has a duty to observe. The licence fee concession was passed over, so I do not criticise the BBC for making the decision that it did. The BBC accepted the responsibility, and we should now let it get on and deliver at least a free licence to those over-75s who qualify for pension credit. As the shadow Minister said, the BBC will now write to all people in receipt of a free television licence with the new rules, setting out how they can apply, and I am hopeful that the decision will to a certain extent rectify the underclaiming of pension credit. Those 37% of people over the age of 75 who are entitled to pension credit will now have another incentive to claim it.