In 2000, the Labour Government took the very positive step of exempting the over-75s from television licence charges. Millions of people have benefited; 5,220 pensioner households currently benefit in my constituency. In 2017, the Conservative manifesto promised those people and their families, in Burnley and Padiham and throughout the country, that that benefit would continue. That promise has been broken, those people have been betrayed, and I have heard nothing from Conservative Members to mitigate that.
The decision to outsource the commitment to the BBC is a betrayal. Shockingly, the decision was made in a closed room with no public consultation and no consideration of impact. More than £150 a year may not seem like an awful lot to Conservative Members, but for pensioners on a fixed income it is a substantial amount. Age UK estimates that more than 2 million pensioner households will cut back on food and heating to pay the licence fee, while others will give up their TV altogether.
Does the Minister understand that for many people over 75, particularly those who live alone, the TV is literally a lifeline? Loneliness and social isolation are reaching epidemic proportions, and older people are far more likely to be affected. Many rely on their TV for companionship: the Campaign to End Loneliness has found that 40% of old people cite TV as their only source of companionship. For those who are housebound, the TV may be the only voice that they hear; without it, the long, lonely evenings will be even lonelier. But it is more than that: for so many people, switching on the television set represents their only connection with the outside world. Less than 50% of people in the over-75 age group have access to online news, and the majority are unaware of social media and the vast array of online services. To all intents and purposes they are digitally excluded, so their access to TV is even more important.
The Government have outsourced the delivery of their manifesto commitment and are now sneakily and shamefully trying to outsource responsibility. There is a pattern here: the Government have a habit of outsourcing services but with no funding to go with them. We need look no further than the shifting of public health responsibility to local government—another short-sighted Tory shambles, which is destined to lead to more problems and an increased financial burden on the NHS.
The BBC has been placed in an impossible position. The cost of providing free TV licences for the over-75s currently amounts to £745 million a year, which equates to 18% of the BBC’s service budget. A budget reduction of such magnitude, at a time when operational costs are rising and competition from Sky and Netflix is increasing, is unsustainable and can be managed only by reducing the channels and services offered to customers. The BBC is at the forefront of the UK creative industries, with an enviable reputation right across the world. Forcing it to take this financial hit is a blow to the entire industry sector, which contributes more than £100 billion a year to the UK economy.
I am also mindful that withdrawing this benefit will be yet another blow to the economy in my constituency. Withdrawing free licences for all over-75s will take £785,610 out of Burnley. If the benefit were means-tested instead, and only those pensioners who claim pensioner credit were allowed to keep their free licences, the cut to Burnley would still amount to more than £500,000. It really is a scandal. The Government must think again.
The central point is that it is not the BBC’s responsibility to fund this benefit. Free television licences for the over-75s are a social benefit, which should be funded by the Government. The Government are trying to shirk their responsibilities. This is yet another broken election promise that makes an absolute mockery of their claim that austerity is over. If austerity is over, they should do the decent thing00keep their promises, fund this universal service and give our senior citizens the support that they deserve.