It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Faisal Rashid. I am pleased to speak in this important debate, which I thank my hon. Friend Tom Watson for securing, and which is timely, considering that a decision is expected next month on the future of free TV licences for over-75s.
We have heard powerful contributions from across the House that have demonstrated how damaging it would be for older people if the Government broke their 2017 manifesto commitment. In my constituency alone, 6,000 older people would lose out if the free TV licence was scrapped. I am sure many in the House will be familiar with Age UK’s deeply troubling report released last month, “Struggling on: Experiences of financial hardship in later life”. It details the shameful fact that 2 million pensioners now live in poverty—a shocking increase of more than 300,000 in the past five years—and that almost 1 million say they are one bill away from financial disaster, unable to find enough money to cover an unexpected bill of £200. If we have almost 1 million older people just a bill away from ruin, how on earth do we expect them to find £150-plus for something they have never had to budget for? Age UK researchers found that scrapping free TV licences could push more than 50,000 pensioners into poverty—and now the Government expect them to find another £150.
I am going to make this slightly personal now. My mum, Betty, is 88 years old. Like many of my constituents, she has lived alone for the last 15 years, and like others, she is involved with various community groups in the week, but that takes up perhaps one or two hours each day. The TV is undoubtedly more than just a box in the corner of the living room; it is a companion and it is entertainment. It is also a great conversation starter when people attend church or lunch club. “Deal or No Deal” keeps brains sharp. The news keeps us connected. “Line of Duty” keeps people on the edge of their seats. Betty, my mum, is in the fortunate position of being able to pay for her TV licence if she had to, but many in Batley and Spen are not.
My mum is one of over 3.6 million older people in the UK living alone, 2 million of whom are over 75. Over 1 million of them say the TV is their main source of companionship. We are talking about hundreds of thousands of people who can go a week without speaking to another human being; people who might not have any interest in subscription-only channels and rely only on terrestrial TV; people for whom the TV is their friend, who might now have to choose between companionship and heating the house. It is a choice that will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable and create profound loneliness.
Thanks to the work of organisations such as Age UK, the Royal Voluntary Service and the Jo Cox Foundation, we have increased our understanding of loneliness by leaps and bounds. We now know that millions of older people are lonely, and the Government have shown leadership and a commitment to ending loneliness by giving us a loneliness Minister, so why on earth would they inflict such a devastating blow on the most vulnerable, while outsourcing the financial burden to the BBC—a burden that they know full well it cannot meet without making cuts elsewhere? The National Union of Journalists has said that such a burden, which would amount to £1 billion by the end of the next decade, would be “catastrophic” for the broadcaster.