I am pleased that we are having this debate today about a welfare provision that is currently received by more than 7,000 older people in Crewe and Nantwich—and I stress that this is a welfare provision. Effectively to outsource responsibility for welfare policy to the BBC, an organisation that is supposed to be independent of Government, is cynical and irresponsible. I am deeply concerned about the impact this decision will have on the older people I represent.
As we have heard, four in 10 older people say that television is their main source of company. Last year, the Prime Minister launched the Government’s first loneliness strategy, saying:
“This strategy is only the beginning of delivering a long and far reaching social change in our country—but it is a vital first step in a national mission to end loneliness in our lifetimes.”
The Prime Minister also set out a number of commitments, including adding loneliness to the ministerial portfolio at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and promising to incorporate loneliness into ongoing policy decisions with a view to a loneliness policy test being included in the Department’s plans. Can the Minister tell the House today whether this decision passed that test?
In addition to my concern that this decision will exacerbate our national loneliness crisis, I am concerned that it comes at a time when progress in tackling pensioner poverty has stalled. The estimated cost of funding this provision is more than the BBC’s current annual spend on all its radio services, and far more than it currently spends on its children’s television services, CBBC and CBeebies. It is difficult to see how the BBC can ever fund this provision with its current level of funding without a significant impact on the range or quality of services it provides.
I am also concerned about the impact this decision could have on the wider UK creative industries. A report in 2015 concluded that the BBC directly invests more than £1.2 billion outside the organisation, benefiting at least 2,700 different creative suppliers. In addition, the skills and experience gained by those working at and with the BBC inevitably go on to benefit the whole sector, which made a record contribution of more than £100 billion to the UK economy in 2017.
Finally, however, I return to the point I made at the beginning of my contribution: the free TV licence for over-75s is a welfare provision. Political decisions regarding the future of any such provision surely rest with the Government and with the Department for Work and Pensions.