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(Urgent Question:) To ask the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to make a statement on free TV licences for the over-75s.
The BBC is a fundamental part of the social and economic fabric of this country. It is important for people of all ages, but particularly for older people, who value television as a way to stay connected with the world.
The Government recognised the importance of the licence fee when we agreed a funding settlement with the BBC in 2015 to provide the BBC with financial certainty to plan over the long term. We agreed to take action further to boost the BBC’s income by requiring iPlayer users to have a TV licence, and we unfroze the licence fee for the first time since 2010 by guaranteeing that it will rise each year in line with inflation.
In return, we agreed that responsibility for the over-75 licence fee concession would transfer to the BBC in June 2020. We agreed a phased transition to help the BBC with its financial planning as it did so. This was a fair deal for the BBC. At the time, the BBC director-general said the settlement represented
“a strong deal for the BBC”,
which provided “financial stability”.
The BBC is operationally independent, so the announcement yesterday is very much its decision, but taxpayers want to see the BBC using its substantial licence fee income appropriately to ensure it delivers for UK audiences, and that includes showing restraint on salaries for senior staff. In 2017-18, the BBC received over £3.8 billion in licence fee income—more than ever before. The BBC is also making over £1 billion a year from commercial work, such as selling content abroad, which can be reinvested. So we are very disappointed that the BBC will not protect free television licences for all viewers aged 75 and over.
The BBC received views from over 190,000 people as part of its broader public consultation, which sought opinions on a number of options. With a number of proposals on the table, the BBC has taken the most narrowly defined reform option. I firmly believe that the BBC can and should do more to support older people, and I am now looking to it to make clear exactly how it will do that.
We found out yesterday just how little a Tory manifesto promise is worth. I have read these words in the Chamber before, but I will read them again:
“We will maintain all…pensioner benefits, including free bus passes, eye tests, prescriptions and TV licences, for the duration of this parliament.”
No ifs, no buts, no wavering—a promise made in 2017 to voters by the Conservative party.
Today, 3.7 million over-75s find that promise in tatters. They have been betrayed, and it is shameful. The Government have the breathtaking gall to blame the BBC for this mess, but passing the buck will not work. The BBC is not the Department for Work and Pensions. Public broadcasters should never be responsible for social policy. My hon. Friend Chris Bryant warned in 2015 that this was a “smash and grab raid” by the Government on the BBC. He was right, and now older people are paying the price. There are 1.8 million over-75s who live completely alone, and they will lose their TV licence because of the announcement. How can the Secretary of State justify that? We cannot means-test for loneliness or social inclusion.
What about the very poorest in our nation who are eligible for pension credit but do not claim it? How will the Secretary of State protect them? Two of the Tory leadership candidates—the former Leader of the House and the Home Secretary—have committed to overturning the decision. Perhaps they know how it will look to the rest of the world when we start jailing pensioners who cannot or will not pay the licence fee.
I would like to share some figures with the House: 4,240 older people in Uxbridge will lose their TV licence; 5,970 people in West Suffolk will be affected; and 6,730—the number in South West Surrey. Boris Johnson wants to give a tax cut to the very richest, but he will not lift a finger to defend pensioners. The Health Secretary says he cares about social care, but he will not defend pensioners either. The Foreign Secretary tells us that he cares about the chronically lonely, but he will not defend even the loneliest pensioners. Is it therefore any surprise that the country’s pensioners are asking whether the leadership candidates will honour their word and keep their promise, or break it?
This is a test not just of leadership, but of honour, integrity and truthfulness. Does the Secretary of State agree that someone who cannot keep a promise is not fit to be Prime Minister? It is as simple as that.
Well, Mr Speaker, it is not quite as simple as that. The hon. Gentleman knows I have a good deal of respect for his passion and his consistency. I accept that he has always argued that it was wrong to transfer the responsibility to the BBC, but the arguments he makes today were better suited to our debate on the Digital Economy Act 2017. Indeed, he made those arguments then—I accept that. However, the argument was had, a vote was conducted and a result was recorded. Consequently, the BBC has the responsibility for deciding what to do about the licence fee concession. That is a fact.
The hon. Gentleman raised several concerns and I will try to deal with them. First, he is rightly concerned about those who are elderly and lonely. I know that he will recognise that the Government have not relied on the BBC to do something about those who are lonely. We are the first Government to appoint a Minister for loneliness, to have a loneliness strategy and to commit £11.5 million to pay for several programmes under the Building Connections fund. The Government take loneliness seriously and have put our money where our mouth is.
The hon. Gentleman also raised concerns about the poorest pensioners. Let me say two things on that. First, as he knows, the Government have put considerable effort into raising pensioners’ living standards. We have increased the basic state pension by significant amounts. It is today £675 higher than if it had simply been uprated by earnings since 2010. In cash terms, that is £1,600 more for every pensioner. We take seriously the responsibility to look after those who do not have means and are pensioners. Again, we have put our money where our mouth is.
The hon. Gentleman made a good point about eligibility for pension credit. It is important that all those who are eligible claim it. That is exactly what we, too, believe should happen. My colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions have been working hard on that. I and they expect the BBC to help us in that task by ensuring that, as the opportunity presents itself, people who do not yet claim pension credit but are entitled to it do so. I hope that we will have the hon. Gentleman’s support in that process.
It is important to stick to the facts and not to scare people unnecessarily. It is important to understand that the change will not happen immediately, but next year, and that those who are entitled to pension credit can still have a free TV licence. It is also important to understand that evasion of the licence free is not an imprisonable offence. It is helpful if we do not mislead people on those points.
I have said that the Government have put their money where their mouth is in looking after the individuals about whom the hon. Gentleman is rightly concerned. The House and pensioners over the age of 75 have a right to expect the same of the Labour party. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to come here and express his outrage about the transfer of responsibility to the BBC and away from the taxpayer, does he accept that it should be transferred back? If so, where will the money come from? He is offering to commit to £500 million of extra public spending. We are all interested to know where it will come from.
My right hon. and learned Friend knows that there is no job in the world I would like more than his. He will therefore be delighted by what I am about to say because it will preclude any future Conservative Prime Minister from giving me the job.
I was in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport when the Treasury imposed the policy on the BBC to meet its £12 billion welfare target, which I doubt we have met and has long been forgotten. The Government should either take back the policy or support the BBC changes. They should not use weasel words to undermine the changes that the BBC has made. It is interesting that 40% of those over 75 subscribe to paid-for television services as well. We should support the BBC in making the changes.
I respect my right hon. Friend’s experience in this matter. I am tempted to say that if he really wants my job, today would be a very good day for him to have it, but I do not think I will make that offer.
My right hon. Friend is right that the BBC’s decision must be respected, but we all have a right to express our view on the decision. It is a BBC decision—I have clearly accepted that; it is what the statute says—but we all have a right to express our view and I have been frank with the House in saying that I am disappointed that the BBC has not been able to do better. I think it still can do better and I intend to use the forthcoming period to persuade it to do so.
As much as they try, Tory Ministers cannot wash their hands of this terrible decision. A Tory Chancellor, George Osborne, proposed handing responsibility for the licence fee concession to the BBC as part of a disastrous charter for the BBC. The Government knew exactly what they were doing and they knew that this would be the result.
Ms McVey has made the matter a Tory leadership issue, even if I have more chance of scoring the winner tonight in Belgium than she has of becoming Prime Minister. Every single Tory leadership candidate must answer the question: “Will you bring the TV licence fee concession back to the Government?” That is the only way pensioners will avoid losing out—some 300,000 in Scotland; 3,000 in Airdrie and Shotts. Age Scotland reckons that 76,000 pensioners in Scotland do not claim pension credit even though they are entitled to it.
In the light of that decision, what consideration has the Minister made of funding the BBC to reverse it? How does this decision square with the 2017 Tory party manifesto commitment that helped to elect the Minister, which promised to, and I quote from page 66,
“maintain” pensioner benefits,
“including free bus passes, eye tests, prescriptions and TV licences, for the duration of this Parliament”.
The Tories promised pensioners that their free TV licences would remain. They must honour that promise.
The hon. Gentleman says that we should ask Conservative party leadership contenders whether they will bring this obligation back to the taxpayer. I hope that he will ask the same question of Opposition Front Benchers, and not just that question but the follow-up question: if they intend to do that, where will they find the money to pay for it? Will they cut elsewhere? Will they borrow more? That follow-up question must be asked of all those who argue that we should reverse course on what Parliament voted for in 2017.
The hon. Gentleman says that the Government knew what they were doing when this arrangement was made in 2015. I suggest that the BBC also knew what it was doing. It is important to remember what the BBC said at the time. Let met quote what the director-general of the BBC said on the “Today” programme after the deal was done in 2015:
“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.”
That is what he said. If we all enter these deals with our eyes open—we all should—we should all be responsible for the decisions we take.
May I respectfully say to my right hon. and learned Friend that when the decision was taken it was understood that this would be a possible outcome, not least because to maintain the existing concession would cost the BBC nearly £1 billion by the end of the charter period, which would mean either huge programme cuts or increasing the licence fee for the under-75s to nearly £200? Does he accept that restricting the concession to those over-75s on pension credit will provide help to elderly people on low incomes, and if it is publicised properly, it should actually significantly the increase the take-up of pension credit?
Yes. My right hon. Friend’s last point is an important one. As I said earlier, it is important that we raise the take-up of pension credit. There are tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of older people in our society who are entitled to help they are not currently receiving. If the BBC can assist in that process, by getting the message across that they are entitled to that help and that they will be able to claim it, that would be a good thing. I entirely respect his experience in the process that has led up to this point. As I said earlier, I accept that there are hon. Members who feel passionately that the decision taken in 2017 was the wrong one. I understand that that is their view, but it was the decision taken, and as a result, this is a BBC decision to make.
While the then BBC management was extremely foolish to accept this albatross around their neck—we warned them at the time—I am absolutely aghast that the then Culture Secretary and his junior Minister sitting behind him, the right hon. Members for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) and for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), seem to be washing their hands of the responsibility. They were the people in charge and they just caved in to the Treasury—extraordinary! The Secretary of State, defending the BBC, should stand up to the Treasury. Is it not the truth that this is nothing to do with the BBC? This is about a Government who have deliberately passed responsibility for what should be a social security issue on to our main public service broadcaster.
I will not repeat what I have said about the decision and the process that was undertaken in 2017, but the right hon. Gentleman knows better than many people in this House how collective responsibility works. He knows that the Government stand behind decisions they make collectively.
I would like to put in a word for BBC local radio. We have talked a lot about television, but many of my constituents love BBC Radio Cornwall. That is paid for by the licence fee, as well as the World Service, which is an extraordinarily good broadcaster. Clearly, the BBC said at the time that it would be able to keep this concession in exchange for increases in the licence fee, and it does have £5 billion of income. I am really disappointed that the BBC is doing this to some of its core listeners, but I do think that it is important the Secretary of State does what the Prime Minister said yesterday, which is sit down with the BBC and sort this out.
I can tell my hon. Friend that I will be sitting down with the BBC to discuss this issue. As I said, this is a BBC decision. Statute gives this responsibility to the BBC to decide the question, but we can have further conversations, and we should, about what else the BBC can do to help precisely the people Tom Watson raised at the outset, about whom we are all concerned: those who are elderly and those who rely on the television for all sorts of things.
The Secretary of State says that it is a simple matter and, yes, it is. This is the simple fact of a political decision being forced on a broadcaster. The BBC is not responsible for pension credit; the Government and the DWP are. By criticising the BBC for this decision, does he accept that he is undermining the BBC’s independence in a way that is completely unacceptable?
No. I accept entirely that the BBC is not responsible for pension credit. It is, however, responsible for making a judgment on whether or not to continue with the BBC licence fee concession. It is not compromising its independence to say so; it is a restatement of what the Digital Economy Act 2017 says. The Act was passed by this House. I respect the BBC’s independence— I made that clear among the first things I said—but I think we are all entitled to express a view on whether we think the BBC has tried as hard as it might to help precisely the people we are all concerned about.
My right hon. and learned Friend is right that the maintenance of the concession for those on pension credit is the key to what happens next. May I introduce some maths into this? At the moment, roughly a third of pensioners who are eligible for pension credit do not claim it. That saves the Government about £3 billion a year. That is a considerably larger figure than is being talked about here in terms of the licence fee concession. Have the Government made any calculations about what will happen if even half of those who are eligible for pension credit now start claiming it? It seems to me that that would be a lot more expensive for the Government than maintaining the concession.
My right hon. Friend knows, from his experience as a former Secretary of State in the relevant Department, that the irony of the situation is that this is a saving the Government do not wish to make. This is something the Government wish to change. We want more people to come forward and claim pension credit. Therefore, it is entirely in the interests of Government policy that we command the BBC’s support in getting those numbers up. I very much hope that is what happens.
The Secretary of State admitted that Ministers pushed this on the BBC, and all the Government’s Back Benchers voted for this policy in the face of all the warnings and knowing what the consequences would be, so forget the crocodile tears. The truth is that his Government are supporting taking away £150 from pensioners who are on about £10,000 a year, while Ministers and Government Back Benchers are careering around the country promising £3,000 in tax cuts for people who are on 10 times more than those pensioners. On what planet is that fair?
No, I am not careering anywhere and I have not admitted any such thing. What I said was that when this deal was made, both sides—the Government and the BBC—ought to have known what they were doing. As I indicated, the BBC made it clear at the time that it believed the settlement reached in 2015 was, overall, a fair settlement. The consequences of that arrangement and the Digital Economy Act 2017 mean that the BBC has to make a judgment about what to do with the BBC licence fee concession. It has made that judgment. We are all entitled to say what we think of it, but in the end it was its judgment to make from the point at which that 2017 legislation was passed.
Does the Secretary of State accept that the BBC’s income is about £5.5 billion a year? That is where the perspective needs to be presented. It is outrageous that this decision has been made in the manner in which it has been made. It is not necessary. Furthermore, I believe that the Government, under a new Prime Minister, must review the situation. Does the Secretary of State agree that the BBC does not give value for money and requires radical reform?
No, I cannot entirely agree with my hon. Friend on that. I think that the BBC presents huge benefits to our society and to the nation beyond our shores. It is right that the BBC receives substantial income—I should say in the BBC’s defence that it has important responsibilities to carry out with that income and we expect it to do so—but it is also right that we expect the BBC to use its imagination and work hard to find ways to supplement what it has now agreed to do in the interests of older people, about whom we are all concerned.
I speak in support of the renewed campaign to retain the free TV licence for over-75s. Four years ago, the BBC agreed to the new regime, as the Secretary of State said. The demographics of the over-75s have not changed much since that time and nor has the take-up of pension credit. Four years ago, did the BBC raise either of those issues, which it now complains about to the rest of us?
Of course, I was not present for those negotiations, so I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman that. What I can say is that they were not conducted at gunpoint. They were conducted by two sides who ought to have understood the consequences of the obligations that they were taking on. I realise that this is a difficult concept for Opposition Front Benchers, but it is important that we all, when we take on a financial commitment, know how to pay for it.
I declare an interest as the chairman of the all-party group on the BBC. A consultation was launched, to which 190,000 people responded, and the pension credit option, which the BBC has selected, was the preferred outcome. However, although we talk about the BBC having options and choices, we did not provide almost £750 million-worth of funding in the intervening years for it to make that choice. I also say, perhaps to all Members of the House: what is so fair about allowing millionaire over 75-year-olds to have a free TV licence when they may have Sky TV, yet those in their 20s are struggling to buy their own homes?
My hon. Friend’s points have been made elsewhere, both within the Houses of Parliament and beyond them. It is right to expect the BBC to consider carefully the responsibility that it has inherited. I have said before that I welcome the fact that the BBC conducted a full consultation, and the scale of the response shows that people took the consultation process seriously. It has considered the consultation responses and has come to a conclusion. I am disappointed at the conclusion that it has reached, but I accept that as a result of the statutory changes we made, it is the BBC’s decision, not the Government’s.
Twenty years ago, I played a character in “Coronation Street” called Tricia Armstrong, who was imprisoned for not paying for her TV licence. That caused quite a furore and, in fact, was mentioned in this place at the time. I know that people do not go directly to prison any more for not paying for it, but of the 6,000 constituents of mine who will be affected by this change, I know that there are many who are so proud that they will never claim a benefit such as pension credit and will never claim support for their TV licence. What is the Minister going to do for those who will not claim, who do not want to be criminalised and are therefore prepared to let their TV licence go? Will the Minister with responsibility for loneliness—the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Mims Davies—be doing an audit on this?
Of course, we want to make sure, in conjunction with the BBC, that everything that can be done to make sure that people do not find themselves in that position is done. The BBC has ways to contact people that are not available even to the Government. It is important that it makes use of every device that it can think of to get the message across that if people need this support and are eligible to claim pension credit, they are entitled to a free TV licence. It is important that we all help to get that message cross.
I do not have an over-75s TV licence because I do not qualify for one, but I will.
My view, as an officer of the all-party group on the BBC and as someone who has been watching the consultation, is that the BBC was required to make a proposal and it is doing so. This is not a still photograph; it is a moving picture. We should be asking in Parliament and in the Government, because there is a great range of views: what do we want to happen?
My view is that we should raise the 75 age threshold by one year every two years, because of longevity, and we ought to add the value of the concession, together with the free bus pass, to the tax allowance for the over-75s, so that those of us who are earning well or have a good pension are contributing, without having them taken away. That would be simple and easy.
Enjoy the next 49 days—plus the year, of course.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting suggestion. He will know that one of the options that the BBC considered and consulted on was raising the threshold from 75 to 80. I appreciate that he is suggesting a rather more subtle variant of that. I want to continue the conversation with the BBC about what else it might be able to do, but I recognise that this specific decision is the BBC’s to make and that it will make that in the form that it thinks is most appropriate.
It is not just this issue that is affected by the way the funding arrangements have changed. Until 2010, the BBC World Service was funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but £253 million in funding was stopped and the BBC was given the responsibility. Does the Secretary of State accept that the FCO has subsequently given money to the BBC for language services, so there is a precedent? Could we get around this by the Government paying the entirety of the World Service funding as they used to, so that we would not have this problem?
Well, I do not know whether that is a way to deal with the whole issue, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, but he is right to point out that since the licence fee settlement, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has announced direct funding, in fact, of £255 million over three years to support language services for the World Service. He is right to point out that other streams of income are involved, but of course, we are talking about very much larger sums than that over a prolonged period in connection with this concession.
I worked for the BBC on and off for 20 years and it is an organisation that I love. I am not now and will never be a Tory Beeb basher, but on this, it has got it wrong. The BBC gets a guaranteed income from licence fee payers of £4 billion a year in a deal that the BBC was eager and enthusiastic to accept, because that gave it a guaranteed cash income that commercial organisations can only dream of. And now the BBC tells us that it cannot afford to continue this concession. Will my right hon. and learned Friend work with the BBC to ask it to live within its means, stop scaremongering about cuts, be more accountable in the way it spends our money and reverse this decision?
I shall certainly continue to engage with the BBC and to continue to ask it to live within its means and provide the services that my hon. Friend and I both want to see it provide to a very high standard. As he will recognise, this decision is one that we have already transferred to the BBC. It is the BBC’s decision to make, but I do not believe that this is the end of the conversation about what more the BBC can do to assist the older people we are all particularly concerned about.
In response to the shadow Minister, Tom Watson, the Secretary of State said that the Government are simply taking forward a decision of the House under the Digital Economy Act 2017. For the purposes of transparency, will he tell the 4,030 pensioners in my constituency of Paisley and Renfrewshire North, representing three quarters of all over-75s, which two parties during the passage of that Act voted against the Government continuing to fund this scheme?
The 2017 Conservative manifesto contained a number of interesting ideas, some of which it has been more convenient to forget from time to time. In this instance, it was quite categorical, so will my right hon. and learned Friend in some way, shape or form ensure that the over-75s maintain their free TV licences for the duration of this Parliament?
As I have made clear, this decision is not for the Government to make any longer; it is for the BBC. We made clear our expectations before the decision was taken; I have made my views to the BBC clear since the decision was made; and I shall continue to make arguments to the BBC about what more can be done.
In Lewisham East, 3,410 pensioners will lose access to free TV licences, which will perpetuate feelings of loneliness and isolation. The Government are clearly refusing to accept responsibility —indeed, they are dodging responsibility—for breaking a promise made in their 2017 manifesto. Does that mean the Tory Government cannot be trusted?
No, of course not. More to the point, if the hon. Lady is concerned about loneliness—I accept in good faith that she is—I hope she recognises that the Government have taken material action on loneliness more than any Government before. We take these matters so seriously that, as I have said before, we are prepared to put our money where our mouth is on loneliness—and we have done so.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that instead of forcing the over-75s to pay the compulsory TV tax, with the threat of criminal prosecution, the BBC, which consistently tells me that it is the best in the world, should move to a subscription model and sell its services to those who wish to buy them all across the world? The current system is completely unfair, because every time it is heads the BBC wins, tails the taxpayer loses again.
As my hon. Friend knows, the question of replacing the licence fee with a subscription model or any other model was considered relatively recently and the licence fee model was considered still to be the best one to pursue. I do not believe this is the right time to review that question.
It is not the BBC’s responsibility to guarantee free TV licences for the over-75s any more than it is the energy companies’ responsibility to provide the winter fuel payment. The Conservatives’ manifesto was very clear: they committed to protecting free TV licences for all over-75s. Some 3,600 pensioner households in my constituency have been betrayed. What message would the Secretary of State like to send to them? How can they trust a word the Conservative Government say ever again?
I am afraid the hon. Lady is wrong. It is the BBC’s responsibility to decide what to do about the licence fee concession; it says so in the Digital Economy Act 2017. As it happens, this is the sequence of events: the Digital Economy Act passed and received Royal Assent before the 2017 general election. She is simply wrong to say that it is the Government’s responsibility. It is not; it is the BBC’s decision to make.
I add my name to the list of MPs bitterly disappointed at the BBC’s reneging on its 2015 deal. I hope BBC bosses are listening to the debate and will listen to my constituents and everyone else’s, because they depend on other people paying their licence fees. If the BBC does not feel that it has a moral obligation to uphold that deal, will my right hon. and learned Friend do everything in his power to ensure that it informs every single person over the age of 75 who will lose the concession, so that they know what steps to take to avoid ending up without a TV licence?
My hon. Friend makes a good point about communication. It is important that the BBC does it utmost to ensure that such changes are communicated in a responsible, accurate and helpful way so that those who are still entitled to help can receive it.
As the Government decided to subcontract a key election promise and the subcontractor has failed to deliver on it, might they not take the decision back in-house and fulfil their election promise?
The right hon. Gentleman knows that the process is in statute. If the Government were to seek to pursue a different course, we would have to bring further primary legislation before the House. I do not believe that is necessary. What is necessary is for the BBC to sit down with us, as I am sure it will, and talk about what more it can do beyond the decision it announced this week to assist those in greatest need of the assistance that the concession offers. That, we will do.
I, too, am a huge supporter of the BBC, but this decision stinks and it needs to rethink it. It has resiled from a commitment and based the decision on the wrong argument. To pick up the point made by Tracy Brabin, the pride of many over-75s, who do not want to be part of the benefits culture, will not drive them to claim pension credit merely to get a free TV licence. They will suffer to scrape the money together to avoid and avert the loneliness and isolation of not having the TV, their only companion. When my right hon. and learned Friend talks to the BBC, will he make the point, which I do not believe it understands, about the pride of this generation and their aversion to being part of a benefits culture?
My hon. Friend makes a fair point, but it is important that the BBC does everything it can—we will assist it in the process—to ensure that the scenario he outlines does not happen. Actually, as my right hon. Friend Damian Green mentioned, there is an opportunity to do something about the ongoing problem of underclaiming of pension credit by those entitled to it. We should look to do something about that, which, as I have made clear, the Government have sought to do for some time.
More than 4,000 of my constituents will lose their free TV licences. Will the Secretary of State explain to them simply and clearly how he expected to keep the promise made to them in the 2017 manifesto about their free TV licences? What mechanism did he intend to use?
As I have said, the Government’s view as to what we expected of the BBC was clear. It was expressed clearly a number of times, including by me and indeed by the Prime Minister. However, the statutory fact of the matter is that this is a decision for the BBC to take. We made our view very clear, and other hon. Members made their views clear too, but it remains the BBC’s decision to take. I regret that it took the decision it did, and we must now speak to it about what more can be done.
I do not know what caused the change of view. There has been a gradual process—a transition—during which public subsidy has diminished and the BBC’s responsibility for covering the cost has increased, so this is not an immediate, overnight change. The BBC has covered such costs in larger and larger amounts for two years. It is up to the BBC to determine what more it feels it can do to support those must vulnerable pensioners.
For those asking what more can we do, I think I have made it clear. The Government have already done a huge amount for pensioners. We have made substantial inputs into ensuring that the poorest pensioners in our society are properly supported. The BBC needs to talk about and think about what more it can do. That is exactly the conversation I intend to have.
I agree with colleagues who have expressed opposition to the decision. Unfortunately, it is an inevitable consequence of the Government effectively outsourcing austerity by transferring responsibility for the over-75s concession to the BBC. If the Government will not right that wrong today, will the Secretary of State at least outline how he intends to increase the take-up rate of pension credit, which as has already been mentioned is at the dismal level of 60%, to ensure that those entitled to it do not lose out twice?
Yes, and I hope that as a result of this debate about the licence fee concession many people who are entitled to pension credit but are not claiming it may have their attention drawn to that fact, recognise that they can claim, and do so. We, with the BBC, will certainly give thought to the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion about how that can be best communicated.
The television is a window into the world for lonely elderly people, and may be their only company for long periods. We keep hearing about millionaire pensioners receiving free TV licences, but this decision is not about millionaires. Pension credit is available only to single people with weekly incomes of less than £167.25 and couples whose weekly incomes are less than £225.25. That is not a lot of money. Those who just miss out on pension credit will struggle to find the money for the TV licence. Will my right hon. and learned Friend do all that he can to persuade the BBC to reverse its decision?
It is clear from the Secretary of State’s answer to the question from my hon. Friend Mr Betts that the Government made a promise in their manifesto, but knew at the time that it was not theirs to make. The Secretary of State has said that he is disappointed with the BBC. Will he clarify whether, during those discussions with the BBC, it ever promised the Government that for the foregoing period of that settlement it would retain free TV licences for all pensioners?
I was not present at those discussions, but it is very clear, is it not, that if someone wants to know roughly how much the financial obligation they are taking on will be, there are ways in which to establish that. One would assume that the BBC carried out exactly that exercise, and therefore knew what it was taking on when it made the agreement; hence the disappointment that I have expressed today.
My hon. Friend has heard me say that I think one of the things that the BBC must always have an eye on is the need to control salary levels, which, as he says, the people who are licence fee payers expect to be within sensible bounds. I know he will recognise that one of the reasons we know these things is the transparency that the Government have brought about, and that is a good thing, but I think he has made an interesting and fair point.
We have been here before. The Government hiked up council tax to offset Tory cuts in council services. They introduced a care tax to offset Tory cuts in social care. They introduced a policing tax to offset cuts in policing. Now every single pensioner in the country will know that the Tories made a promise in their manifesto which they could not keep and never intended to keep. When it comes to the next election, those pensioners will remember that, and will remember that they are paying more under the Tories, because of the Tories, for worse services cut by the Tories.
I think that the hon. Gentleman has slightly overstated his case, but if he is concerned about the value of promises, let me say to him that I am still waiting to hear from any Labour Member how exactly Labour intends to fund the promise that it appears to be making to put matters back to the way they were. If they believe that promises are important, they ought to be able to explain how they intend to pay for theirs.
It was fairly obvious that the BBC would seek to minimise the loss of revenue as a result of this decision. We know that we have a severe underspend on pension credit, and we also know from the database how many over-75s live alone or live together as a couple. Clearly that promise should be kept, and those people should receive free TV licences. I have less sympathy when it comes to large families with wage earners who could pay for the licence. Will my right hon. and learned Friend use this as a means of discussing with the BBC what it should do to honour the commitment that it made?
Yes. As I have said, I will continue to have those conversations. As my hon. Friend will recognise, there were other ways in which the BBC could have approached this issue—even if it took the view that the full concession should not be maintained—and it consulted on some of them. We will, of course, discuss these matters further with the BBC.
The Secretary of State may not accept the moral case for keeping the pledge in his manifesto, but there is a good, cold, hard economic case for resolving this too. He said earlier that pensioners would not go to prison, but we know that people go prison for not being able to pay the fine for not holding a licence. Does he accept that the cost to the public purse of the prosecutions and the potential incarceration of pensioners, and indeed the consequences of pensioner poverty, far outweigh any benefit from this? Just like the bedroom tax, this is a false economy. Rather than avoiding responsibility for it, the Secretary of State should act on behalf of public taxpayers and get it sorted.
As I said earlier, it is important to be accurate about what may or may not happen. The scenario that the hon. Lady has set out is not one that any of us wants to unfold, and one of the conversations that must now take place with the BBC is about ensuring that we do everything possible to avoid it.
I am a huge supporter of the BBC and normally support the director-general, Tony Hall. Can the Secretary of State confirm that Tony Hall was in the room when the negotiations took place, that he accepted the terms, and that he called the deal a good financial settlement? Perhaps, however, we could help the BBC to fill the gap by enabling and encouraging it to exploit its valuable library further, for instance through streaming and other commercial opportunities.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He knows that that is exactly the sort of option that the BBC is considering, as indeed it should. He is also right to say that Tony Hall was fully engaged in those negotiations. I know he will understand that it is important that I continue to discuss with the BBC not just the matters that he has raised but other matters too, and I shall do so.
The BBC was very happy to grab a contract that gave it an increase in the licence fee when it was offered that contract by the Government, in the full understanding that it would have to cover for the over-75s. However, it continues to squander money. For example, 150 people there are paid more than the Prime Minister. The Newsgathering agency pays far more than commercial enterprises. When will the Secretary of State hold the BBC to account by saying, “Either you honour this contract, or we take the money back from you and make the free TV licences available ourselves”?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the position is resolved in statute, and unless we choose to change that statutory position, this remains a BBC decision. As I have said, however, I do not think that it is the end of the story. I think that the BBC can do more than it is currently proposing to do, and I intend to continue to put pressure on it in that regard.
This day was inevitably going to come, given the policy concerned. When the Secretary of State responds by saying that this is a BBC decision, he is in fact saying that the BBC, an outside organisation, has a veto over the Conservative Government’s delivery on their manifesto commitment. May I join my hon. Friend Mr Wragg in inviting my right hon. and learned Friend to confirm that he will ensure that the Government fulfil that manifesto commitment?
My hon. Friend will recognise that the delivery of many manifesto commitments requires the co-operation and assistance of others, and this is one of them. We made clear our expectations, and I hope that we have made clear our disappointment. What we must do now is engage further with the BBC about what further action it can and should take.
I have listened carefully to what the Secretary of State has said, and I am getting a bit sick and tired of the weasel words that he is using. It was quite clear to the 9,000 over-75s in Hull who are to lose their free TV licences that it was a manifesto promise made by the Conservatives in 2017 that they would not lose those licences. As Martin Vickers has just said, surely a manifesto promise is the responsibility of the Government, and the Government should ensure that it is implemented.
I think that the responsibility of the Government is to continue to discuss with the BBC how this can best be done. This is a BBC responsibility, and those are not weasel words. It is a matter of fact. It is what the statute says, and we must therefore work within the bounds of what that statute tells us. But within those boundaries I believe the BBC can do more even if we accept, as I believe we have to, that this is a BBC decision from the outset. Now that it has made this call, we need to talk to it about what more it can do to address the concerns of the older people that I know the hon. Lady and others are concerned about.
Is the truth of the matter not that both the BBC and Her Majesty’s Government are at fault over this issue? On one hand my constituents in Kettering are outraged that, having accepted the financial settlement in 2015 and an increase in the licence fee for all the rest of us, the BBC should effectively renege on that commitment by targeting the over-75s at a time when it spends zillions of pounds on overpaid presenters and other so-called stars. At the same time, both my right hon. and learned Friend and I were elected on the Conservative manifesto, which promised pensioners that they would retain their free TV licences. We have already broken one huge manifesto commitment to leave the EU on
I am sure, Mr Speaker, that you will not want me to engage in that particular manifesto commitment, but let me deal with the other one. It is important, as I have said, that the BBC, which does have this responsibility, takes it seriously and makes the best judgment it can, but also that once the BBC has made that judgment we talk to it about what other things can be done in pursuit of the assistance that we all agree needs to be delivered to the most vulnerable older people in our society.
This measure means that 5,100 of my constituents will lose out—a whopping 72% of those who currently qualify—and for the record I am appalled at the blatant attacks I have heard today on the very principle of universalism. Is the Secretary of State comfortable—a yes or no answer will do—with people in their 80s and 90s facing prosecution for not having a TV licence while Tory leadership contenders line up to compete about who can implement the biggest tax cuts?
I am not here to speak for any leadership contender; I am here to speak for the Government, and the Government have the responsibility to make sure the BBC carries out its particular obligations under the Digital Economy Act 2017, but that we have the opportunity thereafter to talk about what more can be done, and that is exactly what we are going to do.
Nearly 3,500 households in my constituency are now set to lose their free TV licences next year despite a Conservative manifesto promise that they would be kept. This is an outrage. So will the Government apologise, do the right thing, and commit today to funding these TV licences at the very least until the end of the next Parliament?
I hope I have made it clear that I think the right thing to do is accept what the law requires as things stand but to work with the BBC to make sure that those in greatest need are properly looked after, and that is exactly what we intend to do.
The 1,440 of my constituents who are affected are not going to be impressed by the Government’s shamefaced turnaround on this issue after having committing to upholding the free licence fee. The Secretary of State might say that the Government are not responsible for this, but they are responsible for the increase in pensioner poverty, loneliness and isolation that will ensue, so what are the Government going to do to mitigate those inevitable impacts and guarantee that those detriments are reversed?
I gave the House the statistics some moments ago: the position is radically improved since 2010 for pensioners who rely on a state pension. That is what this Government have done to make sure that pensioner poverty is tackled. We have done more than Labour ever did, and I will take no lectures from the hon. Gentleman about what it is to look after pensioners; it was not our Government who came up with a 75p increase in the pension. So we will do what is necessary to look after the welfare of the poorest pensioners, but the position on the licence fee is as I have set it out.
The Secretary of State shifts the blame on to the BBC, shifts the pain on to 3,300 of my constituents, and stands there in shame for breaking this promise to the British people. He is in government; he can change the law, take this back into the Department and make this promise good. Will he do that?
This is the BBC’s responsibility. It is not shifting the blame to say so; it is pretty much quoting word for word what the Digital Economy Act 2017 says. What we should now do is seek to address what else the BBC can do in this space, and that is what we are going to do.
I have written to Portsmouth pensioners to understand the impact the change to the TV licence scheme would have on their lives, and as one 95-year-old constituent told me:
“I lost my wife in January and now I spend a lot of time alone. Having the TV on is like having someone with me, I do not know what I would do without it.”
How would the Secretary of State advise me to respond to that pensioner?
It would of course depend on that gentleman’s circumstances, but I hope the hon. Gentleman will be prepared to assist us and the BBC in making sure the right information is given to older people who may be concerned that they are about to lose their TV licence when in fact they are not, because some will retain it. It is important that we get across clearly to those who will otherwise worry that if they are or could be in receipt of pension credit, they will not lose that benefit. So it is important that we all take the chance to communicate with our constituents in a way that is accurate and that reassures where we can.
This is a Government who raised the pension age and who only last month changed the pension credit criteria, making it more difficult for couples to qualify for pension credit—something the Secretary of State has not mentioned. Those couples could very well be among those who do not now qualify for the TV licence. But does the Secretary of State agree with the principle that this Parliament has a right to reverse the decision of a previous Parliament, and that there should now be a debate and a vote on who is responsible for the TV licence and who is eligible for free licences?
Of course the hon. Gentleman is right that Parliaments cannot bind their successors, and if the Government bring legislation forward Parliament will have to consider it. On the question of whether or not Parliament has opportunities to consider this matter, it is having one now, it has had them in the past and I have no doubt that you will be prepared to entertain all applications if they are made, Mr Speaker.
Most of those set to lose the TV licence will not qualify for pension credit but still struggle to make ends meet, including 4,470 from Bedford and Kempston. Does the Secretary of State agree that his party has broken another manifesto pledge and cut a lifeline to the outside world for many older people, who suffer most from loneliness and social isolation?
Some 3,220 people in my constituency currently benefit from this policy. No matter which way the Secretary of State tries to dress it up, to transfer the responsibility to the BBC without the corresponding budget and then have Tory MPs line up, as they have done over the last few days, and criticise the BBC is just plain wrong, not to mention shameful. So will the Secretary of State review this situation, yes or no?
I think I have been clear about what I intend to do next. I am not seeking to dress anything up; I am expressing to the House what the current situation is, and the situation is that the BBC has the responsibility to decide what to do with the TV licence concession we have been discussing, and it has decided. I have expressed my disappointment with what it has decided and intend to take the matter further in discussions with it.
Nearly 4,000 of my constituents are going to be affected by this decision. I find it absolutely shocking that the Secretary of State, who stood on a 2017 manifesto that promised over-75s that they would keep this benefit—hard-working over-75s who have lived by the rules all their lives and contributed in every way to get this tiny benefit—now says they cannot do so. Does he not think he owes those people more of an explanation than he is giving this House today?
I think I am up to about an hour and 10 minutes’-worth of explanation so far, and I think it is important, as I have said, that we communicate what is happening to older people who will be concerned. It is important to do that with accuracy and to be straightforward about who will be able to retain this benefit, and it is important for the Government to continue to communicate with the BBC. As I hope I have made clear, I intend to do so.
I always believe that there are three sides to the truth. There is the truth of the BBC, which I have much sympathy with; the Government’s truth of not fulfilling a manifesto commitment; and the truth of the 7,066 pensioners over 75 in my own constituency. There is also the truth of Josephine, who phoned GMTV yesterday morning to say that
“it means an awful lot to me, because that would be £25 a month coming out of our joint pension. We’re self-funding in a residential care home”— luckily, that will not happen in Scotland—
“and he gets no pension credit. They’ve taken all his attendance allowance when he went in, so what happens to people like us?”
Would the Minister like to tell Josephine what happens?
As I have said, it is important that we continue to discuss with the BBC what more can be done for people like that. It is important, as I have said, to be clear about who will continue to get this benefit, and it is important to have this continuing conversation with the BBC about what more can be done for those people, but I will not accept that this Government have not done anything to support people who are in difficulty. Quite the reverse: this Government have done a huge amount to do that, and it is important that when we communicate these things, they are communicated in the round.
Knowing that this decision was coming down the line, knowing that the BBC may have made the choice that it has made and knowing that this was a manifesto commitment of his Government, has the Secretary of State personally had any discussions with the Treasury in his 11 months in office, to ensure that the 3,800 pensioners in the Delyn constituency who will lose their benefit and now pay over £500,000 more—money lost from our local economy—can get justice and see the Conservative party meeting its manifesto commitment?
The answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s question is that I discovered the BBC’s plans on Sunday, before the announcement on Monday. I have not had a discussion with Treasury Ministers since that time but, as I said, I intend to have a number of discussions about what further action can be taken, predominantly by the BBC, but of course the Government will continue to look at what they can do across the whole range of benefits policy, as they always do.
It is predicted that this change in plans will cost the BBC £250 million by 2021-22. That is money that is not going into jobs in Pacific Quay in my constituency. Can the Secretary of State stand here and guarantee that no jobs will be lost in Pacific Quay as a result of this sleekit Tory sleight of hand?
What I can say to the hon. Lady is that when the BBC decided to take on this responsibility, one would have thought that the bare minimum of what it expected to have to outlay would have been what it is currently intending to outlay, so it should have made any calculation about how affordable that might be in 2015—and I am sure it did. She and I will both continue to expect the BBC to provide a good service, employing excellent people in her constituency and elsewhere to offer the best possible television product to the nation.
I do not think it is possible to say I am happy. I think my disappointment has been made very clear, but it is, I am afraid, now for the Government to work with the BBC to see what more can be done. I hope that if the hon. Gentleman’s party continues to say that this responsibility should be taken back by the taxpayer, we will at some stage get a little detail about how that might be paid for.
Three thousand households in my constituency will lose their TV licence, yet the Tory leadership candidates are focused on cutting taxes for the wealthy and have nothing to say about this vital support being taken away from the elderly. Is this not another broken promise from a Tory Government who always choose to protect the few at the expense of the many? Will the Minister tell me which Tory leadership candidate he would support to find the money?
I think the hon. Gentleman is wrong, and if he was here earlier, he would have heard others quoting what the Conservative party leadership candidates have said specifically on this subject. As I said earlier, I do not answer for any of them; I answer for the Government.
I do not know what Hugh Gaffney did or did not pick up, but he has certainly been here throughout these exchanges.
I have 4,200 elderly constituents who will lose out because of this. Any of them who are watching the answers from the Dispatch Box today will be reminded, as I am, of a line from a Billy Connolly joke, which is that “a big boy did it and ran away”. That seems to be the Government’s response. The Secretary of State asked how the £500 million could come from the taxpayer, but he is one of those who voted for inheritance tax cuts, corporation tax cuts and cuts to income tax thresholds for the richest. I have figures from the House of Commons Library showing that those measures will cost £80 billion by the year 2025. I will send him those figures as a starter for where the money can be found.
If the hon. Gentleman is waiting for me to apologise for my advocacy for low taxes, he will wait a long time. I believe in low taxes, and it is important that we are a low tax economy, but I also believe it is important to offer the maximum support to those who need it most, and that is exactly what this Government have done. There has been no evasion on the position from me. I have made it quite clear to the House what the position is, and the arguments that have been deployed today are the same arguments that were deployed in 2017 and the same comments that were made in 2015. We have all known what the position was in terms of the BBC’s responsibility for at least two years, and arguably for four.
Does the Secretary of State not agree that the BBC saying it is not in charge of welfare benefits does not take away from the fact that it has a duty of care to the public, and that its petty statement of shifting blame does not help those who are sitting alone at home? Does the Secretary of State agree that this could well be the straw that breaks the camel’s back in terms of people determining not to use the BBC and to withdraw their fee?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the BBC has a responsibility here, and to be fair to the BBC, most of the people I speak to at the BBC accept that. However, I do not find the conclusion they have reached so far to be satisfactory, which is why I will continue to speak to them about what more can be done. I very much hope that his conclusion is wrong and that people do not move away from the BBC to other providers. I believe the BBC has a good deal to offer, not just to the world of broadcasting but to our society more broadly. However, it is important, as he says, that it takes its broader responsibilities very seriously.