I agree. When we move away from progressive taxation we move into a system that is extremely unfair, and not the kind of society that most of us want to live in.
Former BBC director-general Greg Dyke suggested that leaving the BBC to pick up the tab would impact on programme quality. He said:
“Let’s not kid ourselves this won’t have an impact on what the BBC will supply. It will.”
As well as the impossible choice that has been foisted on the BBC as the UK Government seek cover, this policy means that the Tories are rolling back on their manifesto pledge to maintain pensioner benefits, including free TV licences. How can older people—indeed, anyone—trust what they say in any future manifesto pledge?
Let us remember that the reason that all households with someone aged over 75 have been entitled to receive free TV licences, funded by the UK Government, is to help tackle pensioner poverty and isolation. The Tories have decided to cease funding completely from next year. If the free TV licences are scrapped, the consequences for my constituents in North Ayrshire and Arran, of whom more than 9,000 will be affected, will be far-reaching. Combating loneliness is very important when it comes to health outcomes for older people. To try to contract out that responsibility to the BBC is cowardly, fools no one and sets a dangerous precedent.
According to the BBC’s own figures, scrapping the over-75s concessionary licence will take an average of more than £22,000 a week out of the pockets of over-75s in every single constituency, and we know that many thousands of pensioners already struggle to make ends meet. Age Scotland’s “money matters” project found that four in 10 people over the age of 50 report feeling financially squeezed, and its survey on the housing needs of older people found that six in 10 pensioners who live alone report difficulties paying their fuel bills. We know that 70% of over-75s have a long-standing illness and 29% live below or just above the poverty line. Make no mistake: this Government are effectively asking our older people to choose between switching on the heating or turning on the TV. Having another bill to pay will push many more below the poverty line, or deeper into poverty. As of
The financial strain can be further exacerbated by any disability or long-term health conditions that an older person may be living with. The proportion of adults with a long-term, limiting health condition is increasing as the population ages. More than four-fifths of people aged 85 or over have reported that their daily lives are limited by a long-term health problem or disability. That is important, as there are numerous extra costs associated with having a disability or long-term health condition, such as having to get taxis more often to get out and about, and extra heating costs. Many rely on their television for companionship and entertainment. For the considerable number who do not have the internet, TV helps them to stay up to date with what is happening in the world.
The Government have told this House repeatedly that they cannot pay women born in the 1950s their pensions because we are all living longer. Well, given that the Government recognise that we are all living longer, they cannot shirk their responsibilities and abandon those who are living longest. The Government cannot have this both ways. The goalposts cannot be shifted depending on which particular group of society they wish to shaft at any particular time; it is simply not good enough.
For many older people, their television is not just a box in the corner—it is company. Television is a lifeline, particularly for those who are most vulnerable and older. If mobility issues mean that someone struggles to get out and about, the TV helps them to stay connected. When money is a constant worry and that is stressful, it is an escape. When people spend their days alone, it gives them something to look forward to, and they often identify closely with TV characters and personalities. Figures show that over-75s watch an average of 33 hours of television each week, compared with eight hours a week for those in their 20s. Imagine the loss of that lifeline for so many of our poorer pensioners, who simply will not be able to afford the cost of a TV licence.
Let us not forget—this has not been mentioned yet—that every year people are fined for non-payment of their TV licence. To potentially prosecute people in their 80s and 90s is completely unacceptable, and it could well happen if these free television licences are abolished. I ask the Minister: is this an example of addressing the “burning injustices” that the Prime Minister once spoke about? I believe it is vital to support our pensioners. Not only is the UK state pension the lowest in the developed world relative to wages; it has been further damaged by the Tory Government’s plans to reduce eligibility for pension credit, leaving some couples out of pocket by £7,320 every year. If we throw in their contempt for women born in the 1950s regarding increases in the pension age, it is clear that the Government have no intention of honouring the contribution that our elderly population have made over the years.
The BBC is a broadcaster. Public welfare is not its remit, and it should not be expected to decide whether older people have free TV licences or not.