(12 months ago)Westminster Hall
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.
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
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.
I will take an intervention from the hon. Gentleman if he likes.
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.