Moved by Lord Foulkes of Cumnock
That this House takes note of the case for the provision of free public transport and television licences for older persons as a means to alleviate loneliness and isolation and of the case for maintaining well-funded public services to support care for the elderly.
My Lords, I am particularly grateful to my noble friends in the Labour group in the Lords for agreeing to bring this topic forward and for asking me to speak to it. It is a really important issue, as is indicated by both the number of Peers wishing to speak and indeed by the distinguished nature of those who have put their names down for the debate—I said that to ensure their support.
The subject is one I care very deeply about. I have had a long-standing interest, as some colleagues know, in age-related issues, dating back to the 1970s, when I was director of Age Concern Scotland. I should also declare an interest, not because I have manifestly got more of a vested interest in age-related issues, but because I am the current chair of Age Scotland, an office of which I am particularly proud.
The scourge of loneliness throughout society is widespread and until relatively recently was not often talked about. There is now an increasing awareness, however, illustrated by the fact that next week marks the third annual Loneliness Awareness Week. Older people are especially vulnerable to loneliness and social isolation. People can become socially isolated for a variety of reasons, such as decreased social mobility, families moving on, leaving the security of the workplace, the deaths of spouses and friends, or simply through disability or illness. Whatever the cause, feeling alone and vulnerable can lead to other, more serious issues, such as depression and a serious decline in physical as well as mental health and well-being.
According to research carried out by the Office for National Statistics, more than half of all 75 year-olds live alone and 10% of 65 year-olds say that they are always or often lonely. That equates to more than a million people saying that they are always or often lonely. The research also found that older people are far less likely to let it be known that that they suffer from loneliness. A particular urgency and immediacy have been given to this debate by the frankly appalling news that the universal right of over-75s to a free television licence is to be ended. This has been greeted with widespread dismay. Indeed, the Age UK petition calling on the Government to reverse this decision was sitting at 433,000 this afternoon, after just a few days. If this policy is carried through, it will add substantially to the problem we are discussing today, that of loneliness among elderly people.
Since 2000, anyone aged 75 and over has been entitled to a concessionary TV licence. This was a progressive Labour policy, introduced by then Chancellor, Gordon Brown, which has increasingly become a vital benefit for older people, particularly poorer older people. However, in 2015 this Government, opposed by Labour, decided to transfer the costs of the concessionary licence to the BBC as part of a wider agreement regarding the licence fee. On Monday, following what it says was its largest ever consultation, the BBC decided to end this benefit unless the person was receiving pension credit. I doubt that any of those directly affected supported this outcome. Indeed, 48% of those consulted supported the status quo—nearly half did not want any change at all and the rest put forward various forms of change.
For those living alone, the TV is often their main companion—their window to the outside world. Research by Age UK sadly found that over a million people say that the TV is their main source of company. One in four over-75s views the TV as their main source of companionship.
The Conservative Party agreed and pledged to protect free TV licences for over-75s in its 2017 election manifesto—on page 66 to be precise, if the Minister wants to double-check that. The corporation has estimated that over 3 million people will lose the free TV licence under these proposals. Those who receive pension credit equate to only a little more than 800,000, or 15% of those currently eligible. The people who will be hardest hit are those who just fall short of qualifying for pension credit, but who can by no stretch of the imagination be described as wealthy. Indeed, by being over that limit, they are already no longer entitled to help with spectacles, teeth and extra heating, so they will be quadrupally disadvantaged by this proposal. The £154.50 which to noble Lords in this place may not seem a lot is absolutely crucial to the survival of these pensioners. It is the difference, in some cases, between heating and eating. They are counting every penny, and now have this additional blow.
Let us be clear—and I am glad that my noble friend Lord Bragg is speaking in this debate—that the Government cannot blame the betrayal of that commitment on the BBC. It was not the BBC that published the manifesto; it was the Conservative Party. It now has an absolute moral obligation to ensure that the promise is fulfilled. On Tuesday I asked the Minister who is replying to the debate today, since the legislation transferring responsibility to the BBC was passed before the 2017 election, how the Conservatives, when they decided to include in their manifesto that they would maintain free TV licences for those aged 75 and over, expected to be able to implement that promise. I look forward to hearing that in the reply; I will jump up if I do not get it. He was not able to give a satisfactory answer on Tuesday, so I look forward to it this evening.
No. 10 issued an astonishing, hypocritical statement, saying that it, the head of the Government, expected the BBC to continue the concession and pointed towards the large salaries of senior BBC staff. These are two separate issues. Whatever one thinks about BBC salaries, they are a drop in the ocean compared to the £745 million—a fifth of the BBC’s budget—that this would cost. This is a social welfare issue. The BBC is not the Department for Work and Pensions, and the Government must answer the straightforward question of why they are breaking their manifesto commitment to more than 3 million older people.
I will return to the general theme of this debate. The work carried out by many charities to mitigate government policies is absolutely crucial. A key part of the strategy of charities has been to focus on loneliness—we have had that in Age Scotland and Age UK in the past year. A number of essential services have been set up: friendship groups which bring people together, allowing them to socialise; and women have been getting together more, but now through Men’s Sheds men are getting together to use their skills to help society as a whole. There are also helplines that provide free and confidential help, as well as benefit and other advice, specifically for the elderly. One helpline, getting around 10,500 calls every week from lonely and isolated older people, says that 53% of the callers say they have no one else to speak to. That is why they are phoning. It should also be said that the handling of these calls is often carried out by great volunteers, some of whom I have seen at Age Scotland.
While every such initiative is crucial and should be encouraged, they do not address the scale of the issue. The Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, set up following the death of the wonderful former MP who campaigned tirelessly on this issue, found that while government cannot solve loneliness alone—of course it cannot—it could bring together the key actors and develop a clear strategy. That led to £20 million in extra funding to address the issue—which, frankly, is a drop in the ocean—as well as widening the role of a DCMS Minister to include this area and lead cross-government strategy. But it was not the creation of a Minister for Loneliness, as some in government and the media have claimed.
These are all welcome steps, but they take place before the backdrop of massive government cuts in social care for older people. The LGA has estimated that there will be a £1.5 billion funding gap by 2019-20 for local authorities, rising to £3.5 billion by 2024-25. How can we expect there to be any chance of those concerned with the welfare of older people overcoming all these challenges?
This brings me to free and concessionary bus passes, which are also of great importance. They allow for accessible travel and interaction with other people, making loneliness less likely. I have been really keen on this, as I know the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, was when she worked with Age Concern England. They get all the people out and about, to mix, keep active and become less reliant on health and social services, and save money as a result. In rural areas especially, they are also crucial for getting older people to medical appointments, banks and post offices. In 2017-18, there were 8.5 million passes in England for older people. It is estimated that 71% of eligible women and 67% of eligible men have a pass.
But the LGA estimates that there is a £652 million funding gap, with local authorities having to fund the costs out of their hard-pressed resources. The SNP cutbacks are affecting local government in Scotland as well. There have been suggestions, including, regrettably, by some Peers, of means testing for free bus passes. However, research by Age UK has pointed to the dangers of this. Better-off people are far less likely to obtain and use a bus pass, so the savings through means testing would be modest and the administration costs great. Take-up is higher among those from lower-income groups, and it is they who will be deterred from applying if means testing is introduced. However, the free and concessionary travel on buses for older people also helps keep these vital bus services viable to be used by the rest of the population. They would not exist if they did not have older people using their passes on them.
This brings me to the recent report by the Select Committee on Intergenerational Fairness and Provision. It has made some positive recommendations on intergenerational provision, which are welcome, but I disagree with its specific recommendations 33, 34, 35 and 36. These relate to age-related benefits, removing the triple lock on the state pension, phasing out free TV licences and raising the age that you start receiving certain benefits. It made these recommendations on the basis that younger households are sadly now relatively poorer than older households. However, that is not an argument for reducing the hard-earned entitlements of older people. Nor does it represent a general truth. There are millions of older people struggling to make ends meet and suffering from loneliness at the same time.
What is important is the inequality between the richest and the poorest in society, as we heard in my noble friend Lord Dubs’s debate earlier today. Surely that is the division in society we should seek to address, rather than playing off poorer younger households against poorer older households. Some 21% of wealth in the UK is held by 1% of the population. Over 40% is held by 5% of the population. It is they who should help the poor of every generation.
The first aim of this debate is to emphasise the sheer scale of the problem we are dealing with. Loneliness may be out of sight and out of mind, almost by definition, but it is the daily experience of millions and poor reward for the contributions they have made to society through their active lifetimes. Those noble Lords who watched, as I did, the D-day celebrations will have seen those veterans. Were they not fantastic? Were their statements not great? When you think of the contributions that they have made, why should they and others of their generation suffer?
We need to support and encourage the many admirable initiatives which exist. However, the role of government cannot be overstated. Even if a particular measure does not include the word “loneliness”, it may well have a huge negative impact on those who are already enduring that condition and seeing their few lifelines of human contact under threat.
Free travel and free TV licences are two particularly powerful examples of how we can help—there are many others. An awareness of this issue and the unhappiness it creates must run through government as a whole to influence policies to ensure no further damage, but instead an enhancement of essential services and the quality of life that they underpin.
Sadly, the threat to TV licences shows how quickly progress can be reversed and the promises from Ministers rendered meaningless. An immediate reversal of this disgraceful decision would be the best illustration that the Government understand the problem and are listening.
My Lords, my age and appearance compel me to declare an interest in the subject matter of this debate.
For most of my political life, it has been a given that we should provide ever-increasing support for the elderly, but it is interesting that we have now, seemingly, reached the point at which serious debate arises about the balance of support between the young and the elderly. Why else did your Lordships’ House set up the Intergenerational Fairness and Provision Committee, to which the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, has just referred?
Today’s Motion relates only to the elderly, specifying loneliness and isolation. It is further narrowed by reference to the twin issues of free public transport and TV licences. As we are not making any final executive decision today, I wonder whether those methods are the only or the best means to tackle loneliness, isolation and the general welfare of elderly people. After all, the NHS and social services are for ever needing more resources, so anything in that direction tends disproportionately—rightly—to help the elderly. One goal that the Government set themselves in their cross-departmental strategy to tackle loneliness was a commitment to improve the evidence base. I certainly support that, because it seems to me that there may be many more ways in which loneliness could be approached than simply the two suggestions in the Motion before the House today.
I certainly recognise, as the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, said, that TV is a main companion for many people, but with only four minutes at my disposal I do not want to go into the argument about funding. I just want to make two points. First, looking ahead, surely broadband is more important to be in every home—particularly in rural areas, but also everywhere—because it is a means which allows local and family connectivity. The fact is that a growing proportion of the elderly community will be computer-savvy. Secondly, are we absolutely sure that broadcasting in the way that we have known it will continue indefinitely, or will other means bring news and entertainment into people’s homes?
I have had the honour to represent two constituencies in the House of Commons, and in both of them I have been a witness to how the intergenerational family structure has been weakened, inevitably leaving more for the state to do. In the constituency of Middleton and Prestwich, overspill housing attached to Middleton as part of the solution to Manchester’s slum clearance programme meant that the young people growing up could not live on the same estate as their parents, because Manchester had 95% of the re-lets. They had to live in another part of town and, in those early days, 40 or 50 years ago, public transport was still a problem for them.
In the much more rural constituency of Saffron Walden, there was hostility building up to new homes, with people seemingly not caring that young people growing up would be forced to move away because they could not afford to live in the area of their birth. I am not saying that mobility can or should be arrested, but virtually forcing families to move apart seems to me distinctly unhelpful.
A growing proportion of the elderly cohort will also be car drivers and, having worked longer, may have more disposable income to support independent living. Through my knowledge of council for voluntary services work, I became aware of many great local initiatives to enrich the lives of elderly people. This sector deserves more support for what it can do. Instead of running half-empty buses in rural areas, I should like more development of schemes of community transport—even the formation of a rural Uber and, ultimately, driverless pods. Some people in old age prefer to be on their own; most of us probably prefer company.
My conclusion is that we need a wider, ongoing debate about how we satisfy a variety of needs. It needs fresh thinking combined with compassion, convenience and a great dose of ingenuity.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, for raising this subject. For once, I remember that, in your Lordships’ House, I am still quite young—but only in your Lordships’ House. There were two things that he raised to illustrate loneliness and the problems of isolation and, only one speech down, the point has already been made that they are not the only considerations. Free travel for people when they get older will stop them being isolated. As the noble Lord, Lord, Lord Haselhurst, pointed out, how it is delivered in future may well change, but it will be beneficial to groups. As he also pointed out, car ownership may well have its limitations. People’s reflexes and eyesight go as they get older, so that may well not be the answer. We have to look at that in certain ways in the future.
However, I intend to address most of my remarks to TV licensing. The noble Lord, Lord Haselhurst, beat me to the punch because, as I did when we discussed this issue on Tuesday, he made the obvious point that the BBC is not a benefits agency. It is designed to deliver programmes online, on terrestrial TV and on radio that are supposed to be accessible to all of us and of a high standard. The BBC is part of Britain’s soft power; it extends our reach. We may well need it in future.
When the over-75s policy was brought in two decades ago, it was designed for the elderly. Stepping into that gap is, shall we say, an example of sleight of hand, or double dipping. You name it—it is about pulling a fast one. This time, it has been spotted. The BBC may have given way in the past, but we have to stand up on this. We should not expect something designed to do something different to take on the job of the Department for Work and Pensions and the activities of the Treasury. That should not happen; in no way should we consider that, or even tolerate it. We cannot go down that route. Just think of where else it goes. Which other agencies that get government money should be expected to subsidise somewhere else? What will we not take our hands off? We must make sure that we respect people for doing the jobs they are told to do, and make sure that people with other responsibilities are taking them on. We cannot allow this in perpetuity. If we do, will we grant these people powers to tax and to elect people to their council? That is the other route we can go down, but I do not think that anybody is in a busting hurry for that sort of solution.
If we accept that the BBC is a general good—and one that must be paid for—and want to help a certain group, we must look at the overall structure. If we are to give away free licences for the hardest up—that is probably a good thing; remember, they support online benefits—higher earners might have to pay for licences when others do not. Of course, there is an assessment cost there, but let us at least open up that possibility. We cannot just allow this double counting. If we do, we open Pandora’s box just a little wider—indeed, we probably pull open the fire escapes as well. We cannot allow this to happen. We must defend the BBC’s right to do what it is supposed to, and that is produce programme content.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Foulkes for giving us the opportunity to discuss this important issue, which, thanks to the BBC, has become very topical in the past few days.
If it is true that a society’s degree of civilisation can be measured in how it treats its most helpless—the youngest and oldest citizens—I am afraid that the UK does not score enough to be at the top of any league table. All of us could enumerate the shortcomings in how we provide for our youngest citizens but, in this debate, we turn to the other end of the life cycle: our oldest citizens. Where better to do that than in this House, where nearly all of us have some experience of the main issues?
For our oldest citizens, our performance is lamentable. Masses of statistics, too numerous to mention in the short time we have, have been provided by many respected organisations from across the UK, including Age UK, Age Scotland and many more. They demonstrate what we have all seen with our own eyes and what we all know from personal experience: social care for our elderly and needy is dismal. Social care provisions are, at best, perfunctory and, at worst, non-existent or unacceptable. The blight of loneliness is increasing and deadly, making long life a misery instead of a blessing.
The latest blow is the BBC announcement that free TV licences for over-75s will be linked to pension credit—that is, means tested. Research from the House of Commons Library finds that 3,037,950 households will lose the free TV licence if that happens. I do not blame the BBC for this; noble Lords may agree with me. In a proper, decent society, the Government take responsibility for social welfare; it is monstrous for a Government to ditch their responsibilities like this and put them on a broadcasting service, private or public. Given that our old age pensions are among the lowest in Europe, using any measure, how can means testing TV licences or any such benefit for our elderly be justified?
I leave noble Lords with two questions that arose in the discussions on the Urgent Question asked on Tuesday in another place by the shadow Culture Secretary, the right honourable Tom Watson. First, how can you means test loneliness? Secondly, how can you means test social isolation? The answer to both is that you cannot—indeed, you ought not even try to do so.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, for giving us the opportunity to debate such an important issue. I have enjoyed working and sharing interests with him over many years. I declare my interests as set out in the register, including at the ILCUK. In my remarks, I will refer to the wide-ranging recommendations of the Select Committee on Intergenerational Fairness and Provision, of which I was a member. Although the media reporting focused on the recommendations on age-related tax and benefits, I remind the House that the committee also made recommendations on housing, training, employment and local communities to promote intergenerational fairness. This is important because there are beginning to be rumblings from younger people who feel that their generation is not being treated fairly compared with their parents’ generation. We must avoid intergenerational conflict or even resentment. Today’s older generations want to make sure that their children and grandchildren have better opportunities in life than they had, but sadly this is not the case.
Loneliness, as Age UK has pointed out, is a long-standing problem. It should be of great concern to us all that the number of lonely older people may rise from 1.4 million to 2 million very soon. Next week, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Dementia, which I co-chair, will publish a report on disability and dementia. Its central theme is that dementia is a disability recognised in both UK law and international conventions. The report makes a number of recommendations, including on transport, where it points out that any changes to bus and community transport services should be reviewed in the context of the public sector equality duty, which I strongly support. We need to think about how that might be expanded somewhat. Access to public transport is a lifeline for many older and disabled people—to visit friends and family, and to get to GP and hospital appointments. That is why I support free local travel for pensioners.
I am also proud to be an ambassador for the Silver Line charity, which does so much to try to reverse the trend towards increased loneliness and isolation. Last year, the ILC with the Just Group awarded an innovation prize to the Chatty Cafe scheme. It encourages cafes to have a “chatter and natter” table so that customers who want to engage with other people can do so. We need to get people to talk to each other because it is very important.
The Government’s loneliness strategy, published in October 2018, is therefore a welcome policy response to a very big problem. Among its specific recommendations was a greater focus on the role and importance of social prescribing. Only last month I spoke at an Arts 4 Dementia conference about social prescribing and last year the ILCUK, with the support of the Utley Foundation, produced a report on the importance of music to guard against isolation. I therefore hope that the Government strategy will successfully embed tackling loneliness and isolation across government departments and that the evidence base on how we do so is improved by all stakeholders.
I turn now to age-related benefits. I have long believed that we need to redefine old age. It was why, when I set up the ILCUK, a think tank looking at the implications of an ageing society throughout the life course, we understood that age is no longer a good proxy for policy-making. People differ enormously in their capacity to work, to volunteer and to be more or less active throughout their older lives, which can now span 30 or 40 years, making generalisations meaningless. It would be like making policy for everyone aged from birth to 40 as though they were one homogenous group. That really would be a bit silly. We now have comprehensive age discrimination legislation, which covers not only work but the provision of goods and services. This ought to protect older people. Many are very experienced and senior workers, which is why I believe people should be defined by their circumstances, not by their age. If an older person is working, they should be seen not as a pensioner but as a worker, and an experienced worker at that.
The intergenerational fairness Select Committee made some sensible and pragmatic recommendations, seeking to strike a balance between the generations while at the same time taking account of rising longevity and the increasing number of older people. On the TV licence, we recommended that free licences based on age alone should be phased out. Rather than passing the decision to the BBC, it should be for the Government to decide. I regret that the BBC has been put in this invidious position. We also suggested that free bus passes and the winter fuel payment should be available only five years after state pension age from 2048.
We need to do things differently. Tomorrow’s older people will be older in a very different society from that of today or the recent past. We also need to keep in mind that isolation and loneliness are not age-related per se, and it is our fault as a society if people remain a huge problem because they are old. We must tackle it—it is a responsibility we all share.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Foulkes on his introduction of the debate. I thank him for his remarks and for his consistent advocacy for the interests of older people, as I consider that I am one.
He has left us with very little to add; I am persuaded by his arguments. The Minister is in a relatively easy position because he has been a Minister since 2014 in his department and he must have dealt with at least some of the debate on the television licence since 2015. I am sure he will be able to answer in some detail.
I apologise to the Minister. I will tell my officials that his CV is incorrect. However, in any event, I am sure he is ready to answer the best question of the day posed by my noble friend Lord Foulkes: how did the Government, post 2015, go into the 2017 election with a manifesto pledge on not only TV licences but free travel without working out how they were going to deliver it? It is the Government’s responsibility to deliver that manifesto commitment and to look after the needs of old and vulnerable people. Jointly, I am sure they have figured out in the past 24 hours how they will solve this problem. I have seldom seen a Secretary of State more discomfited at the Dispatch Box in the other place than the Minister’s was when he was questioned by one of his predecessors two days ago.
I am glad to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross. She told us that she was a member of the Select Committee that tackled intergenerational fairness. Of all its members who recommended that free TV licences be phased out, she is the only one who has come here to own that recommendation and she deserves credit for that. I share her disappointment that none of the other interesting discussions and recommendations in the report have attracted any attention, other than the age-related benefits.
However, what did the committee expect? The nature of those recommendations was such that it was unlikely that anyone would go beyond them and look at anything else. The presentation of the report by its chairman, the noble Lord, Lord True—I am disappointed he is not in his place to answer some of my questions—led to a great deal of publicity, given that it contains sentences such as, “The Government needs to get a grip of these particular benefits”. The argument he put forward—that this type of benefit will lead to conflict between generations in the long term—is nowhere in the report. I do not believe that. I do not think that anyone of the younger generation resents the few things in these benefits that some older people are given to make their lives better, particularly those who are lonely or vulnerable.
If the Minister thinks that in the report of the Select Committee he will find arguments to deploy here that will protect the decisions that the Government have made, or allow them to revise their view of their manifesto commitment, he will be disappointed. He will see that the argumentation of this is one-sided. It concentrates on witnesses who gave evidence to the committee who were utterly predictable in what they said about these benefits.
My Lords, we live in a fractured society. Our twin cults of individualism and the market have tended to diminish our sensitivity to each other’s needs, untie our social bonds and induce extensive anomie and depression. In our wealthy and crowded country, social isolation and loneliness are endemic, particularly among people on low incomes. Age UK reports that 1.2 million people are chronically lonely, and loneliness impairs their mental and physical health. Figures from the NHS yesterday told us that there are 454,000 people diagnosed with dementia and perhaps another 220,000 living with undiagnosed dementia. We should try to imagine the loneliness of those people and of far too many of their carers.
The Marmot review argued that social participation leads to a healthier life expectancy. We are told that perhaps one-quarter of GP appointments are sought by people who do not have a diagnosable clinical condition but who are living in isolation. I very much admire the response to this challenge by the present Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock. His speech to the King’s Fund in November and his long-term plan for the NHS place prevention at the centre of healthcare strategy, social prescribing at the centre of prevention, and the arts and culture at the centre of social prescribing. He has also endorsed the three key messages of Creative Health, the report of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing, which I co-chair with Ed Vaizey. These messages are that the arts and culture can help keep us well, aid our recovery and support us to enjoy longer lives better lived; help the NHS and social care meet major challenges such as ageing, long-term conditions, loneliness and mental health; and help save money for health and social care.
There is much evidence that engagement with the arts, whether through choirs, painting clubs, dancing, drama or reading groups, improves social connectedness and the ability to make relationships and confers benefits for health. There are a number of case studies in Creative Health which illuminate that. A randomised control trial assessing the benefits of Sing For Your Life, a project running singing groups for old people in Kent, found measurable improvements in their quality of life. The Staying Well project in Calderdale, which enables older people to have opportunities to paint, draw or sing, showed demonstrable reductions in loneliness and improvements in health. That project has been extended three times. The Campaign to End Loneliness, developed by Age UK Oxfordshire, Independent Age, Sense, Manchester City Council and the WRVS and funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, is using arts strategies to improve social connectedness, including intergenerational connectedness, and to empower older people.
Age UK’s 2018 document Creative and Cultural Activities and Wellbeing in Later Life points to problems with access to transport as a significant barrier to cultural participation. In Northern Ireland, the Arts and Older People Strategy has identified isolation and loneliness as the first of six key themes. The Arts Council of Northern Ireland, the Baring Foundation and the Public Health Agency are using the arts to improve social inclusion, and they too point to the significance of barriers to transport. Similarly, the strategy for older people in Wales acknowledges a disparity of opportunity between younger and older people in regard to public transport and access to cultural or recreational facilities. The cultural strategy for Scotland, which is out for consultation, sees an important role for culture in reducing social isolation and loneliness.
In England, we should learn not only from the other nations of the United Kingdom but from New Zealand, where the recent budget of Jacinda Ardern’s Government has reframed progress in that country in terms of well-being, not GDP. In England, however, the Government have no strategy for ageing. The Local Government Association recognises the role of the arts in connecting isolated and lonely older people with the wider community, including different generations, and I pay tribute to Councillor Izzi Seccombe for her role as chair of the Community Wellbeing Board of the LGA. But what is the strategy in Whitehall? The DCMS leads on the Government’s loneliness strategy. That is very good, but it does not go far enough. In England, we need not just piecemeal initiatives but a coherent strategy to support an ageing population. I thank my noble friend from Scotland for putting us in England on the spot in that regard.
My Lords, I too welcome this most timely debate on an important issue and thank the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, for tabling the Motion.
Taking part in this debate enables me to speak on behalf of those thousands of over-75s who will not now be entitled to a free TV licence from next year; this action cannot be justified and is simply unfair. It follows a consultation that shows just how much older people value their TV, with one in four of those aged over 65 saying that it is their main form of companionship. Under the new plans, 3.7 million pensioners will now have to pay and 1.5 million households will be ineligible for a free licence; some will struggle to apply and lots more will feel embarrassed about needing help.
Another issue I wish to raise is that many older people have struggled throughout their working lives to save a little extra for their retirement, but that small pot of savings for a rainy day means that they will not qualify for means-tested benefits. We know that half of all those aged over 75 are living with high levels of ill health, including heart disease, stroke, mental illness and other disabilities. These people are likely to have lower disposable incomes after meeting essential disability-related costs, including paying for care and support, so they rely much more on their TV for companionship, entertainment and keeping up to date with news. More generally, we underestimate how many elderly people living on their own rely on their TV to keep them company; as they age, they find human company harder to come by and many do not have access to the internet.
You simply cannot means test for, or quantify, social isolation. Loneliness intensifies as the years go by and can affect anyone anywhere; it would be unfair for those with incomes just above the threshold to be penalised. Loneliness as we grow older has been acknowledged as one of the greatest public health challenges; three-quarters of GPs surveyed said that they see between one and five people per day suffering with loneliness. Doctors of course encourage patients and refer them to art groups, cookery classes and so on, as we heard earlier, which is very much valued. Older people in rural areas who can use local transport, do so to keep in touch with friends, as well as to keep medical appointments or go to the bank or post office. They find local transport invaluable.
While in the past loneliness was sometimes viewed as a trivial matter, it is increasingly understood to be a serious condition which can affect people’s mental and physical health and well-being, and for local authorities it is now a major public policy issue. Engaging in various activities is all well and good, but during those long, dark winter months, when the evenings draw in, going out is not an option; that is when the television comes into play, making people feel connected and lifting their mood. The corporation’s response to 80 and 90 year-olds dependent on their cherished TVs is that it has made a difficult decision. I would go further and say that it has made a fatal mistake, which will not only damage its reputation but undermine its long standing as a public service broadcaster.
I do not know how it can be said that the over-75s should pay to plug this deficit, but it is refreshing to hear the general public say that they would be willing to step up to the plate and give a little more to help salvage and keep that much-prized, universal benefit for older people. Free public transport and television licences are the creative means to alleviate loneliness and isolation, stimulate well-being and keep older people connected to the world.
My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend, including on his timing, and acknowledge his long commitment to the cause of support for older people.
I could not agree more with his calls for free TV licences, transport and so on, and I agree that the problem of loneliness in older people is acute. Nowhere is this seen more starkly than among carers who are themselves often elderly while caring for older people. The Carers UK survey published this week for Carers Week told us that carers—especially if they receive no practical support—are eight times more likely to report that they are lonely than the general population. So any practical or psychological support is welcome for the growing number of carers.
I endorse all that has been said about the need for well-funded services. I have to say, with the greatest respect, that without these well-funded services, including those provided by the voluntary sector, any discussion about social care is simply moving deckchairs on the “Titanic”. We have to tackle the wider issue of how to provide social care for an ageing population—how it will be funded and how it will be organised.
I have been in your Lordships’ House for 22 years and I have lost track of the number of times I have led or participated in debates on social care. Of course, when we do this our speeches are assiduously collected by the doorkeepers and returned to us—and some of us are sad enough to keep the hard copies as well as the electronic ones. I looked through the large pile of mine and I can tell noble Lords that they make pretty depressing reading—as do the Hansard records.
This is certainly not to criticise the quality of your Lordships’ speeches in those debates, which were fine, perceptive and innovative. What is depressing is that we have kept making the same arguments over and over again: in fact, I could have stood here and made the same speech for the past 10 years. We all know that social care is underfunded; that it is as important as healthcare but has never been accorded the same status; that people do not understand the system and do not realise that social care is means tested; and that no one plans ahead for their care.
The arguments are familiar, as are all the attempts to deal with the issue: the royal commission, the Wanless review, the Barker review and the Dilnot commission. Occasionally we have a ray of light. One party commits to a policy and it is labelled a “death tax”—that was my party. The party retreats in confusion. Another party—the party opposite—commits to something that is labelled a “dementia tax”. More retreat in confusion. We did get as far as passing legislation on the Dilnot report, but it was never enacted.
In the last Queen’s Speech—can anyone remember that far back?—we were told that there would be a consultation on social care. Even the promise of a Green Paper got us excited. But where is it? Is anything happening? How important do the candidates in the Tory leadership race think this pressing problem is? I do not have much hope that they will take my advice, but I will give it anyway.
I have just two pieces of advice. First, be honest. No Government of whatever colour or combination have ever made it crystal clear to the public that responsibility for paying for care and for arranging it rests with individuals and their families, and that public funding is available only for those with the least money and the very highest needs. As a consequence, no one prepares or plans for care. We must rethink this and be honest. In addition, we have grown up with the idea that savings and the considerable assets now contained in property can be passed on to one’s family without being touched. We must rethink that.
My second piece of advice is: be bold. Every independent review of the past 20 years has recommended that the future funding of social care as well as healthcare should come from public, not private finance. The needs of individuals cannot be divided neatly into either health or social care needs—as those of us who have tried to fathom the difference between a “health bath” and a “social care bath” have long acknowledged. We must embark on a frank and open debate on how to fund health and social care on a sustainable basis into the future, and remind everyone that such a debate will not be settled in a single Parliament—so we need to secure cross-party support.
The Government’s usual response is to say that no more money is available. However, as Andrew Dilnot often says, it is a case not of “can’t afford” but of “won’t afford”. Our GDP shows that we are five times better off than we were in 1948, and time and again we find that social care, properly delivered and of good quality, with an emphasis on prevention, is a better way of caring for frail, elderly or disabled people than healthcare, especially in expensive hospitals. If we pool the risk—after all, only one in five of us will ever need the more expensive types of care—and prioritise this, we can afford it. It is a matter of priorities. Surely it is not asking too much to call for some commitment and vision on this most pressing problem for our society.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to contribute to this debate. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, whose timing is always politically immaculate and who makes this subject more apposite today than it was last week.
It is an important subject. Both of these concessions form an important part of the network of social protection that the country has embedded in its social security set-up. I have a question which may sound technical—but that does not mean that I do not concur with all the powerful and emotional speeches that have been made.
My noble friend Lord Addington made a point about the BBC not being the DWP. This is passporting that it is getting involved in, with pension credit guarantee; it is passporting undertaken by a non-government department. Passporting cannot be done all that efficiently by government departments; they are struggling to make passporting work with universal credit and still trying to find solutions to some of those problems. It may be premature to ask some of these questions, but can I have an absolute assurance that, if this unfortunate plan proceeds, the Government will cross-examine the BBC on how they are going to do it?
Means-tested benefits always involve cliff edges; they involve disincentives to saving in this case, and they are difficult to administer. We already know that pension credit take-up for 2016-17 was only 60%. If we are looking for extra money and there is a shortfall in take-up of pension credit of that dimension, surely the answer is to get more people to claim what they are entitled to. Then we will all have more money and do not have to start doing the strange, untoward things being contemplated now.
There are 1.2 million entitled non-recipients of pension credit. A question that might occur to people is: what is happening to them? There is an unclaimed amount of £3 billion for 2016-17, and that has been on the books for some time. What is the administrative framework for how this works? The whole question of enforcement comes to mind. Working with households of 75 year-olds often means dealing with advisers and family members, so implicit consent will be necessary to make this work. There will be appeal and verification processes. What happens when one reaches the “can’t pay, won’t pay” brigade? Are we seriously saying that the BBC will take some of these people to court to get the money back? It is deeply concerning that it is assumed that the pension credit link will solve the problem. It will be very difficult. I wish the BBC well, but I do not think it will work as easily as it thinks.
My next point will not please the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, but sometimes I do not. Sir David Clementi, the BBC chairman, has said:
“The Government could of course choose to step in and close the gap from their own resources”.
My personal view—it is not a party view—is that if the upcoming spending review is looking at the triple lock, which is guaranteed only until 2020 anyway, restricting the triple lock to a link with earnings for valorising pensions in future would produce a significant sum of money, which could certainly pay for all this and probably more. It is time to start looking at such things. If my preferred method of raising money, which is increasing the uptake of pension credit, does not work, it is worth looking at the triple lock to find some extra resources to help Sir David out of his difficulty.
The final thing to say, as everybody before me has, is that this is the Government’s responsibility. It lies squarely at the Government’s door. If the Minister thinks that he will get away with shuffling off the blame politically to the BBC in the elections and doorstep discussions that we will all have in the future, he is wrong. This will stick. It has happened on his watch, and his Government will have to answer for it in the fullness of time.
This debate has covered a wide and impressive canvas, but I am going to stick to the BBC licence fee, an issue which is current and of great importance in my world and many of our worlds, including those of many of the elderly in this country.
The BBC’s decision to limit free licence fees to those over 75 who receive pension credit and to take the £0.25 billion-a-year hit from its own funds—i.e. from us, the licence fee payers—seems to me to be a difficult solution, arrived at with a great deal of pain, to a problem not of its own making. A lifeline has been thrown to the poorest in our society, which shows how the BBC, out of our funds, is taking on a government job.
When several years ago the Government steamrollered the BBC into accepting responsibility for giving the licence fee free to all pensioners, it was seen as something that just happened under the yoke of government austerity at that time. Like many others, I thought it was a bad idea. The BBC licence fee is there to support BBC programmes; it is the responsibility of the state to support pensioners. This has been said again and again, from the beginning of this debate and throughout. This move by the Government crossed a boundary. It was a mean snatch-and-grab raid which the BBC board at the time could summon up neither the wit nor the nerve to resist, which it was its duty to do.
The BBC’s independence from government is an essential pillar of its constitution, still admired throughout the world—unlike, sadly, our own current constitutional antics. Yet the BBC, with its 347 million viewers around the world each week, along with the 91% of the adult population of this country who use it every day, is still the gold standard in broadcasting globally, domestically and locally. My own view remains the same: the BBC should not have to shoulder the Government’s social policy. It is already shouldering four times more television channels, twice as many national radio stations and new web services for 24% less in real terms than 20 years ago because of the clamping down on the licence fee. Had the BBC continued to accept the diktat and given everyone over 75 a free licence, when it is widely proved that many pensioners are very willing and able—more able, often, than the younger population—to pay that £3 a week fee, that tax would soon soar to £1 billion a year, resulting in the loss of channels and numerous programmes that are vital to the lives of many, especially those who live on their own and find in television and radio programmes entertainment, solace, companionship and conversation.
The BBC has woven together a tapestry, a niche in minority programmes, unlike anything else in the world. The armada coming over from America will do nothing about that; nothing to help that; nothing to replace that. It is unique in this country and unique to this country. We need all the evidence that we can muster to show that we in this country are still capable of making things that are universally valuable, widely available and richly rewarding. That is what the BBC does. It can continue to do that if the Government stop penalising it, begin to cherish it and see it for what it is: something great that we have. It does not need the Government to undermine it.
My Lords, I also thank my noble friend Lord Foulkes not just for initiating this debate but for his lifetime commitment to this issue. I honour and respect it. Looking at the programming, it is not really a surprise to see—if I may dissent—that the BBC is now part of the Department for Work and Pensions. There is a decline in autonomous civic institutions that run independently of government. It is sad to see how few Conservatives are here, but this used to be a pillar of conservatism—there was a body politic with autonomous institutions that made their own decisions. This is therefore part of the general problem with our politics.
I really appreciated the speech by my noble friend Lord Howarth. There is a general malaise in a society based on individualism and an economy in which, if you really want to get on in life, you have to come to London. I cannot count the number of people I have spoken to who are distressed to be separated from their elderly parents and cannot care for them. We have to look at that issue in the context of regional policy and the economy. These are really huge issues. Obviously, I agree with my noble friend Lord Foulkes and others who have spoken. The noble Baroness, Lady Redfern, spoke extremely eloquently, saying that television and radio are a crucial part of people’s lives. As I say to my children all the time, “The friends you’ve got on Facebook aren’t your friends”. Nothing can beat relationships and real contact.
We sometimes ignore the beauty of this House. What amazed me in the first year I was here was that it is an institution where older people have power and responsibility, and they do work. If you go anywhere else in our kingdom, it is so rare to see vital, alive and engaged older people. To rephrase a somewhat tarnished ex-Prime Minister, I believe that we are at our best when we are at our oldest.
I will put forward three things we can think about, because I hope the Chamber takes responsibility for the debate and thinks about the role of older people in a sustained way. First, it is very typical that there is an initiative called Teach First. I do not know whether noble Lords have heard of it. Young, bright people go into schools—as if they know anything. What about “teach last”? What about getting older people into schools? What about getting them in front of classrooms? What about genuinely showing honour and respect, and giving some power to older people?
I am the Lord of Stoke Newington and Stamford Hill. In the Orthodox community in Stamford Hill, at Yesodey Hatorah School, every single student is paired with an older person who has been widowed or widowered. They visit them every day. They are a part of their lives. When I took that to Hackney Council it said, “Can’t do it—health and safety”, and so on. We have to think of relational ways to integrate older people into the joys of life, such as birthdays. That is what they are excluded from. They are not part of that.
Thirdly, it is now clear that we have to rethink vocational training and skills. How about getting retired workers in as teachers in vocational colleges? There are so many ways in which we can honour older people. I do not think that we should be greedy and keep the privilege of participating in public life strictly for the House of Lords. We should make the argument for it and extend it, because the key aspects of health and life are loving, stable relationships, a sense of dignity, empowerment and participation. That is the key to our treatment of older people.
My Lords, I am afraid timings have become very tight for this debate. When the Clock reaches four minutes, speakers are advised to conclude their remarks, otherwise we cut further into the Minister’s time.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, for giving your Lordships the chance to discuss some of the ways to alleviate loneliness. I shall use my few minutes to concentrate on elderly people with disabilities. What concerns me is that it seems to be the most vulnerable in our society who are selected to have their facilities cut or reduced, causing extra hardship and anxiety on top of challenging situations.
Several years ago my late husband was watching cricket on television when he had a stroke, and he developed diabetes and Parkinson’s. One of his enjoyments continued to be watching cricket on television. Without that, he would have been deprived of his passion.
There are many disabled people living over the age of 75 who have several complex disabilities, many of whom are living alone, having lost a partner or having always been single. Loneliness is a danger.
Disability is expensive. Because of social care being in crisis, many people have to buy in much-needed vital services. One case I know of was a young woman with a child who was stabbed in the neck, rendering her tetraplegic, paralysed from the neck. Now she is older her hands have got contracted. She desperately needs physiotherapy and occupational therapy to stop her hands stiffening completely. Her elderly mother has to pay for this privately as the hospital can no longer supply it.
I agree that for millions of people aged over 75, the TV is their window on the world and their main form of company. Television plays a central role in their lives. If the right to a free TV licence is taken away, the most vulnerable people in our society will suffer. These are the elderly, lonely people with disabilities and long-term conditions such as dementia. I believe many people, hearing about the removal of this benefit of free TV licences for the over-75s, are disgusted. I am pleased that there is such strong support for the elderly people in this country. I hope the Government and the BBC will think again.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Foulkes, who has been my good friend and colleague for over 40 years now, for obtaining this debate and introducing it so ably. I should perhaps say at the outset that I am elderly—I could have claimed the free TV licence for the last eight years, but I have not done so—and I am not lonely. I have probably saved the Government about £1,000.
Much of what I want to say has already been said, particularly the points about the transfer of the free TV licence from the Government to the BBC, which I think is wrong. Will the Minister publish in full all the discussions that took place between the BBC and the Government on this issue? That is very important. If he believes that the TV licence will be abolished somehow or other, was that part of the discussion? Did he tell the BBC to take it or leave it—that it was either this or the Government would abolish the TV licence now? I am sorry; the Minister is indicating that he was not part of that discussion. Does he expect the licence to still be in existence 10 years from now? If not, what will replace it for the elderly people who watch TV and to whom it is their one connection?
If the licence does survive, is it not time that we had different rates of payment for that licence? I probably have at least 10 devices in the house, plus two in the car, so it is unfair that I pay exactly the same sum of money for one TV licence as an old age pensioner living on her own with one television in her house. That cannot be right or fair. This tax was introduced right at the beginning of broadcasting by the Government of the time, in 1926 I think, when having just one radio in the house was enough, and was all people had. Now people have a variety of different devices, so should we not have different TV licences based on the number of pieces of equipment people have? I do not know how that would be paid for, but we could have that system, rather than having one TV licence for all, and that being the norm which is expected from everybody. I can afford to pay more, so surely I should pay more, while those who cannot afford the licence should pay considerably less, or it should be free for them. I ask the Government to take that into account when looking at this.
My Lords, in the last 12 months, I have spent rather more time watching television than has been my usual habit. I very quickly began to lose the will to live with the extensive coverage of Brexit, so I took refuge in some of the Freeview channels. They will not necessarily win a Palme d’Or for their westerns or adventure films, which relive the days of my youth in the 1950s. The fact is that throughout all these programmes of the non-BBC kind on Freeview there were interminable adverts for funeral plans, so these stations are obviously watched by the elderly. To take up the point that my noble friend Lord Maxton was developing, perhaps we ought to look at whether it could be arranged so that some of the Freeview channels make their contribution to the funding of the licence.
Looking at the intergenerational fairness report, there is an assumption that if the benefits given to the elderly are preserved and the benefits to the young are undermined by austerity-driven meanness, then the answer is to extend that meanness to the elderly. This is a fundamental flaw in the argument advanced by a group of people who I would not normally have credited with this degree of stupidity.
I want to finish on this point, as I know that we do not have a lot of time. Several benefits such as the winter fuel payment, the free bus pass and the television licence are seen as benefits which the elderly get at the expense of the rest of us. I was an MP from 1979, throughout the Thatcher years. One thing which struck me at that time was the concept of genteel poverty, when there were people who were frightened to claim the benefits. Nowadays there are people who take advantage of the bus pass and winter fuel allowance, as it helps to pay for the Christmas presents for their family. These people do not always have the money to subsidise their heating costs but this gives them that bit of independence and enhances their integrity. Very often, it compensates for their loneliness.
This is a mean-minded, dispiriting measure for which the Government, either by design or intent, have correctly ended up getting the blame. They have within their capability the means of finding solutions. The solutions should come early because, if they do not come soon, the general election which will follow will see them being punished. If there is one thing that the elderly will not do, it is to forget who is responsible for their increasing misery.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, for securing the time for this debate, which raises a tricky question: how far should we go to help the elderly at the expense of others? We should discuss the key recent development, namely the decision of the BBC to withdraw free TV licences.
I was not in this place in 2001 when free licences were brought in, but the rationale was clearer then. Pensioner poverty was a very real and substantial evil, and this was one reasonable measure to tame it. The BBC was a hegemonic force, with few private sector competitors; much has changed since then. The BBC has to compete with a multiplicity of online competitors, some of which produce exceptional content at far lower rates, and whose subscriptions are not coerced by criminal enforcement. The BBC’s viewership has dropped every year, while the average age of a BBC viewer is now 62—some 20 years above the national average.
Can it be fair for younger viewers to subsidise wholly every elderly person? It would not seem an equitable state of affairs. Many in this place, including myself, could pay for the licence fee, and it seems unjustifiable that we should get it for free. The eventual compromise which keeps licences free for some is a reasonable one that reflects the increasing burden of the measure, and deflects it from being a liability on the young.
Non-payment should be decriminalised to reflect the potential for hardship, and as it is plainly better suited to being a civil offence. I hope this measure sparks some debate and discussion about the scope for pensioner benefits in this economy. A number of benefits were brought in during the last Labour Administration which may need to be stripped of their universality. Put bluntly, they have worked and served their useful purpose. Pensioner poverty has halved in the years since 1997 and continues to stay low. This is primarily because the rocketing cost of housing is less of a problem for pensioners, more of whom own their homes.
It is a major regret of the 2017 campaign that a serious discussion about intergenerational fairness was halted by a poorly communicated social care policy. It was not a well thought out move and was unlikely to work in practice, but it was an important step in addressing how, nowadays, the old tend to be richer than the young but cost the state far more in triple-locked pensions, the winter fuel allowance and free transport.
The cost of social care and healthcare for the elderly is another rocketing cost to the public purse and, at some point, a serious discussion will need to be had about how we can recover some of the cost from the estates of those who can afford to pay more. I should be clear that I do not wish to see the vulnerable suffer; pensioner poverty still exists, and is a scourge on a decent society, but these benefits should not be universal. Means testing, as the BBC has in effect chosen to do, offers a sensible compromise. It will enable us to target our support to the people who need it. The continuing rollout of universal credit allows us to start thinking seriously about what can realistically be justified at this time to keep harmony between the generations.
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the gap. I will make only a couple of points.
The provision of free public transport and television licences for the elderly are important issues. I would like the Government to issue centralised passes for all elderly people across the country, rather than leaving it to local authorities. We have experienced how, when certain provisions are on the other side of a local authority, and there are administrative problems from time to time, elderly people will suffer from a delay in passes being issued. Hospitals, dentists and doctors may be on the other side of the local geographical boundary, or perhaps a sports club they are a member of or want to spend their time in; bus passes for the elderly should be a centralised issue.
Off-peak provision also has to be looked at. What about appointments that elderly people have early in the morning at hospitals, dentists and other places? They have to attend them, so we should look at taking away only the off-peak provision and give them passes across the day.
Means-testing is another point. Organisations such as Age UK have told us that administrative costs would be higher with means-testing, so we should take it out and offer these services to all elderly people, as well as free television licences. The point was made very well in this Chamber earlier that many elderly people suffer from loneliness, and it would help for television provision to be given to them free of charge.
My Lords, the BBC’s announcement that it will stop free licences for all but the most needy over-75s was greeted with shock, disbelief and outrage by pensioners, politicians and public alike, not just those affected. It seems a petty and miserable reneging on a principle and, given that these are the oldest pensioners, another assault on the people least able to fight back. It makes these pensioners pawns in a stately dance of death between the BBC and the Government, who are trying to shrug off their responsibilities. I support the speakers today who have said that this should be the responsibility of the Government, not the BBC. The information I have been given tells me that the BBC has a total of £5 billion, including £1 billion from overseas sales. Sky has £7 billion to spend on programming. Netflix will have $13 billion to spend on programmes. The current provision for pensioners will eventually cost £1 billion. As all noble Lords have said today, we value our national broadcasting company, the BBC, and all that it stands for. How can it possibly cope with this level of responsibility for pensioners’ concessions?
The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, spoke eloquently and made the case for keeping licences and bus passes. He talked about the “scourge of loneliness”. There are so many vulnerable pensioners. Many of the oldest are in social isolation and have depression and mental health issues. More than half of over-75s live alone. This is an absolutely awful reneging on a commitment that the Government gave to these pensioners. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord O’Neill, and the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, about the rather disturbing narrative that pensioners are all well off and do not need benefits. This may be true of some pensioners but it falls short of reality for many, particularly the most elderly, and is very divisive. As the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, said, there need to be good relationships between the young and the old and, by and large, there are.
Experience in my city showed me that many pensioners are living on shrinking resources but not qualifying for benefits. They are unable to afford entertainment so rely on their televisions to provide them with entertainment, news, stimulation and a sense of being part of a bigger world. Many pensioners in rented accommodation, particularly in urban settings, live in communities where there is no support network. They are in flats in places where other people do little more than sleep. Bus services, and a bus pass, and community transport are essential for them. Many noble Lords have spoken about the nature of prevention and how we need to keep people active. The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, spoke eloquently about areas of good cultural practice and gave many examples. We need to build on local experience and enable those. When I was leader of a city council, I tried to get budgets to combine. Budgets are compartmentalised, both in central government and across the NHS. We need to work much harder in that area. There is a lot of social prescribing now, but it tends to be about solving problems of illness rather than trying to prevent it.
Many in this Chamber support these benefits and believe they are essential. However, not all pensioners require them. The report of the Select Committee on intergenerational fairness raised a number of issues about them. I am sure we all know people who say that, though they are retired and are pensioners, they do not really need the winter fuel allowance. Most enjoy the bus pass, but perhaps sometimes feel that the money could be put to better use. If we want to keep these universal benefits, we have to consider exactly how we will pay for them. There are other ways of providing them.
The noble Lord, Lord Haselhurst, spoke about broadband, but unfortunately broadband is not available over wide stretches of the country. I know that in my city there are Wii sports competitions between pensioners in retirement homes and this is a really important feature. Certainly, the internet can provide lots of facilities for people. In some homes I know of, the internet has replaced the television in the room and the pensioners have a much more social experience. They watch television together rather than independently. So there are more ways of making pensioners’ lives happier and healthier, and of fighting social isolation.
The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, addressed the issue of the very different capacities of different groups of elderly people, and we need to recognise that. Good practice in many cities has pensioners delivering services to other pensioners and building on the strength of volunteering. Despite the need, in my view, to keep these universal benefits, we can build on good practice. We can look at cities and rural areas and see how good practice can be financed. People often have really good ideas and can do excellent things but just cannot raise the money to do them. Cuts to local councils have made services even rarer. I support keeping the universality of these benefits; on the other hand, a number of ways of financing them have been raised in the Chamber today.
My noble friend Lord Kirkwood spoke in a personal capacity about such things as the triple lock. The report mentions means testing, which I do not favour because of the cliff edge and the people who fall just short. However, there is an idea that the people in tax could be taxed on the value of some of these benefits; that is an area we could look at.
I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, for bringing this debate to the House and I very much hope that it will not be something that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, said, we do again and again. I certainly support her call for a proper strategy on social care. I hope that some of these ideas might be taken up by the Government and that we might make progress by taking the report of the Select Committee on intergenerational fairness into account in doing so.
My Lords, we owe a great debt of thanks to my noble friend Lord Foulkes for his perspicacity in spotting this issue and timing the debate in the way he has, but also for how he framed his Motion, allowing him to focus on two political nuggets of some depth that are quite hard to deal with in the context of a much wider debate on the question of loneliness. We have done a very good job today in covering the full range of issues that have come up. I think it is fair to say that this is one of the wicked issues—it is very hard for the Government to deal with such a broad range of things covering so many departments. Within our very wide-ranging discussion, the boundaries of the debate came from four or five main contributions; that is not in any sense to devalue others, but these are the ones that set us in the right place.
The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, made sure that in addition to discussing poverty, we did not lose the specificity of those who have a disability in the issues we are talking about. The noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay, had a concern, which she expressed very well, that we are in danger of making long life a misery, not a blessing. The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, made the interesting suggestion that we are getting hung up on age, which is probably a very bad basis for making policy; it is a point we need to think about. My noble friend Lord Howarth reminded us of the evidence on how effective creative work and creative partnerships are in combating loneliness. My noble friend Lord Bragg and others stressed that we should not risk the magnificent job that the BBC does for us day in, day out and year in, year out by asking it to do jobs that it is not properly constituted to do. My noble friend Lady Pitkeathley made a plea for sanity regarding our failure still to resolve the question of social policy: a policy merry-go-round has prevented us making progress in the way we should for far too long. That needs to be addressed and sorted. All speakers have been stressing how crucial a holistic approach must be to this whole question. Loneliness is the end product in a lot of a different areas.
Having said that, we should pay tribute to the Government for having grasped the nettle, as it were, of the policy on loneliness that needs to be addressed here. They are following up on the report by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness and coming forward with a strategy which, although it may need a lot more work now and in the future, certainly sets out the ambition, which is a good thing. Good specific proposals have been announced, such as expanding social prescribing, adding loneliness to ministerial portfolios and incorporating loneliness into ongoing policy decisions. These are important issues; the criticisms we have heard today should not be used to dismantle what the Government have done here, and we should listen to the Minister when he comes to respond on that. There is also a cross-departmental ministerial committee; that should be doing some work as well.
However, we need a bit more from the Government on the evidence regarding the impact of different initiatives. We do not really know what works here. Some research has been published but I think the Government are doing more; perhaps the Minister could update us on that. We need appropriate indicators of loneliness across all ages so that the Office for National Statistics can measure it properly. It is all very well talking about happiness and well-being in relation to GDP; we measure GDP and estimate the rest. Unless we have some hard figures, we will never be able to get to the bottom of this important issue. At the end of the day we also need reports, and I am sure that we are due one shortly. Can the Minister remind us when that is likely to happen?
Several noble Lords have pointed out that we make a mistake if we try to narrow this down to particular issues—strategies, tactics and who is responsible for what. The austerity agenda has been the context here, and the cuts to local government have not been discussed enough today: the closure of 428 day centres, 1,000 children’s centres, 600 youth centres and 478 public libraries; and cuts in funding for countless lunch clubs, befriending services, local voluntary groups and community centres. This all has a cost regarding what our society can do as a whole for those who suffer, and the capacity of organisations up and down the country to provide something of value.
That leads neatly into the question of bus services and public transport more generally. The bus figures are absolutely astonishing. The elderly have been particularly impacted by the cuts to bus services. Statistics reveal that since 2010, fares have risen faster than wages and passenger numbers have plummeted, and new research shows that average fares are likely to be 53% higher in 2022 than they were in 2010. This is not the way to make sure that people travel and meet people, and to go forward.
The biggest policy issue we have been discussing off and on throughout this whole debate is the BBC licence fee. This is both a direct attack on those who benefit from the services—in a way that has been described so well by noble Lords—and an example of the impact that austerity measures dressed up as public policy can have on our society. We now know that the BBC will charge all those not on pension credit the full licence fee, which raises the spectre of criminal penalties for those who are unable or unwilling to pay.
I have some questions about this, some of which were touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood. First, does the Minister agree that pensioner poverty, which halved between 1997 and 2010, is now on the rise again, from 1.6 million three years ago to 1.9 million now? It is forecast to pass 2 million by 2022. Does he accept also the figures quoted earlier in the debate that over-75s are almost 50% more likely to be in poverty than the 65 to 75 age group? What does that mean for public policy?
Secondly, have the Government considered how they will authorise the BBC to means test pensioners for their eligibility for the free licences? Does the legal power exist for the DWP to open up its records and allow BBC officials to access private information on the finances of the over-75s? If so, where is that power enacted, and can he give us the reference? If not, what legislative vehicle will be considered for this, as I presume under the GDPR it will require primary legislation? Who is paying the £72 million that it is estimated it will cost simply to administer this system?
Thirdly, what are the constitutional implications? Does it mean that the BBC, a private company established by royal charter, has become a taxing authority, with all that that implies? Can he confirm that the licence fee will still be decided by the Government and agreed by statutory instrument under the affirmative procedure, and therefore subject to a vote in Parliament? Does he agree with his right honourable friend Mr Damian Green, who pointed out in the other place that roughly one-third of pensioners eligible for pension credit do not claim it, which saves the Government about £3 billion a year? If even half of those eligible for pension credit now start claiming it to retain the free BBC licence, it seems that the Government will have shot themselves in the foot, because the net outcome will be a lot more expensive than maintaining the existing free provision.
Why are they continuing with this ridiculous policy? Is it, as my noble friend Lord Bragg said, just another attack by the hard right from the BBC under the guise of austerity? In the other place, the Secretary of State acknowledged that retaining the free licence fee concession would require primary legislation and implied that it would be hard to find parliamentary time for it. Given that we have virtually no legislation at the moment and are unlikely to have any for the rest of the Session, that is a pretty weak excuse.
As others have said, for the party opposite, nothing, least of all promises made in manifestoes, seems sacrosanct at the moment. Making a commitment about a major policy issue cannot be written off as a mistake. When it was discovered, trying to persuade the BBC to bail them out is a disgraceful way to behave.
This issue is a test of honour, integrity and truthfulness. Decisions such as this will sully the reputation of the party opposite for years to come. The Government should sort it out with a simple amendment to the Digital Economy Act—in a three-line Bill, if that is what it takes. The Minister would have the support of these Benches if he chose to do that.
My Lords, I start, with slightly less time than I should have, by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, for calling this debate and all the contributions. I cannot say that it has been an altogether comfortable way to spend the past two hours.
The Government are committed to ensuring economic security for people at every stage of their life, including when they reach retirement, so I am pleased to say that relative poverty rates have halved since 1990. I am glad that incomes for over-75 households have increased much faster than average. The average income for all households between 1999-2000 and 2016-17 improved by 71%, but for households containing someone 75 or over, average weekly incomes more than doubled. The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, mentioned some other statistics which I do not have in front of me, but I will get back to him on that and his other 15 questions later, and copy the answer to all noble Lords.
We want to maintain the achievement of raising average income for the elderly. We forecast to spend more than £120 billion on benefits for pensioners in 2019-20 and are committed to the triple lock for the duration of this Parliament, guaranteeing that both the basic and the new state pension, excluding protected payments, will rise by the highest of average earnings growth, price inflation or 2.5%.
The Government recognise loneliness as one of our biggest public health challenges. It is estimated that between 5% and 18% of all UK adults are always or often lonely. Frequently, feeling lonely is linked to early death. It is associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, depression and Alzheimer’s. We know that loneliness can affect people of all ages. As Jo Cox said, young or old, loneliness does not discriminate. We are working to help people of all ages to have meaningful social relationships and to avoid loneliness. We are the first Government in the world to appoint a Minister to lead work on tackling loneliness; I appreciate the comments of several noble Lords who acknowledged that.
Last year, we published the world’s first government strategy on loneliness, as well as securing £20 million of new grant funding for projects run by charities and community groups to bring people together. As the Motion suggests, the causes of loneliness and its solutions are many and varied. I much appreciated the ideas of the noble Lord, Lord Glasman, on that with respect to the elderly. I agree with him and other noble Lords that a debate on the wider aspects of this problem would be useful.
The loneliness strategy contains more than 60 policy commitments covering many aspects of people’s lives, from transport and health to education. For example, the Government are improving and expanding social prescribing across England. That will change the way in which patients experiencing loneliness are treated, connecting them to community groups and services through the support of link workers; 1,000 new, trained social prescribing link workers will be in place by 2020 and 900,000 will be referred to social prescribing by 2023-24. The strategy also announced the creation of a network of employers to take action on loneliness. More than 30 leading organisations, including Sainsbury’s, the Co-op, Transport for London and the British Red Cross, have signed up to this network, pledging to support their employees to avoid loneliness. We are also embedding loneliness into relationship education classes so that children can learn about it and the value of social relationships.
We agree that transport is vital to building and maintaining people’s social connections; it is therefore integral to the Government’s loneliness strategy. We have invested significantly in transport infrastructure, providing more than £61 billion in the five years up to 2020. That underpins much of what the Government can do to help people remain connected. We are also providing support to local bus services, community transport and community rail services.
For some people, a free local bus service can be a lifeline, providing access to healthcare and other essential services as well as allowing them to visit family and friends. To support this lifeline, the Government support council spending of around £1 billion a year so that older and disabled people can travel on buses for free. The Government remain committed to preserving the current statutory entitlement to concessionary bus fares. Therefore, last April, we announced a change in legislation to protect the concessionary travel scheme in its current form. However, we must recognise that providing free transport alone will not solve the problem of loneliness. Inclusive transport is key to our approach to the current transport network.
Can the Minister tell us why we should believe what he says about buses when the Government betrayed the trust they sought from the British electorate at the last election? They clearly broke their manifesto pledge there, so why should this promise be worth any more than the previous one?
If the noble Lord is referring to TV licences, I will come on to them later. I hope that I will answer his question then. Of course, the fundamental difference there is that the power to do that was with the Government, not another organisation.
As I said, inclusive transport is part of our inclusive transport strategy, which was published last July, and our future of urban mobility strategy, which was published in March.
Turning to TV licences, I acknowledge and recognise the important role of the BBC in our national conversation and as a constant companion for everyone across the country, especially older people. From impartial news and current affairs coverage to its wide-ranging radio content, it provides something for everyone every day. We know the importance of providing such services, which is why we guaranteed the over-75 licence fee concession until June 2020. We know that television, radio and online services are powerful tools in combating loneliness and isolation.
The noble Lord, Lord Maxton, asked whether the scheme will continue in its present form. In the consultation, the public said that they want that; however, I accept that many changes in the competition and the provision of these services are coming. At the moment, the current charter arrangements say that the current licence will continue in its present form for the 11-year period. I do not know what exactly was said five or six Secretaries of State ago when this was agreed, but I know what was agreed and I will come on to that.
I stress to the noble Lord, Lord Addington, that when we agreed the five-year licence fee funded settlement with the BBC in 2015, the corporation was well funded to provide vital public services. We phased in the cost by providing £468 million in 2018-19 and £247 million in 2019-20, as agreed with the BBC. That is why, as I have said before in the House, the director-general said that the overall deal provided “financial stability”, in his words, and that the Government’s decision to put the cost of the over-75s on to the BBC had been more than matched by the deal coming back for the BBC. It was an agreement.
The licence fee income underpins the BBC’s important role in making sure that everyone can access the content that educates, informs and entertains. I noted earlier this week in the House that the Government did commit to maintaining the current licence fee—I mentioned that to the noble Lord, Lord Maxton. As part of that deal we unfroze the licence fee for the first time since 2010 by guaranteeing that it will rise each year in line with inflation. The BBC received over £3.8 billion in licence fee income, more than ever before. In return, we agreed that responsibility for the over-75 licence fee concession would transfer to the BBC in June 2020. Parliament consented to that and delivered it as part of the Digital Economy Act 2017. That is why we are disappointed that the BBC will not protect free television licences for all viewers aged 75 and over. Of the number of proposals on the table, the BBC has taken the most narrowly defined reform option.
Let me address directly the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes: why did we promise free licences for the duration of this Parliament when we cannot guarantee that the BBC will keep them free from 2020? That is because, as I have said, we agreed with the BBC at the 2015 funding settlement that responsibility for the concession will transfer to the BBC in 2020. That future concession was therefore a decision for the BBC. That was agreed by Parliament in the Digital Economy Act. The Secretary of State has said repeatedly that he expected the BBC to honour that agreement, and that is why we are disappointed. The BBC has acknowledged that the most vulnerable--the poorest pensioners who receive pension credit--will get the over-75 concession. Of course, as many noble Lords have said, there is a possibility that with the help of the BBC in making this available, an extra 600,000 people could receive pension credit because although they are eligible for it, they do not claim it. That would be a good thing and that is what the Government would like to see happen.
The agreement with the BBC, which is in the Digital Economy Act, is what has happened. The BBC has the power and the responsibility to make a decision. It has made a decision and it is not a question of enforcing it. That is what is in the Digital Economy Act and that is what the BBC has done. It is its decision to do that because it is what Parliament gave it.
I am sorry to take the Minister’s time, but what right does anyone have to be disappointed if there was no expectation? It is either an agreement or it is not an agreement. If it is a legal agreement that is enforceable, surely the Government have a responsibility for the third parties who are being affected by this to enforce the agreement.
The agreement put into law in the Digital Economy Act was the power for the BBC to make the decision, so the BBC has done what it is entitled to do and what we gave it responsibility for. What I said was that the Secretary of State expected that because this was part of the agreement reached in 2015, the BBC would do what it said it would do. Oh, I am sorry, that is not true. It said it would do that part of the deal when it was made with the Secretary of State in 2015. The BBC made its decision, which it was entitled to do, and that is the situation.
I do not have much time because I want to allow a little for the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes.
On public services generally, to support care for the elderly the Government have given councils access to around £10 billion of additional dedicated funding for social care over the spending review period, including a £240 million adult social care winter fund for 2018 and 2019 to alleviate pressures on the NHS. This is the biggest injection of funding for winter programmes that councils have ever received. The investment in social care services allowed 65% of local authorities to increase home care provision in 2017 as a direct result of the £2 billion funding boost announced in 2017.
In the medium term, social care funding will be settled in the spending review, when the overall approach to funding local government will be considered in the round. The noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley—who has not given up after 22 years, I am glad to say—mentioned that we will bring forward at the earliest opportunity a Green Paper that will set out our plans to deliver a more sustainable social care system. She asked about the various candidates for leadership. The present Secretary of State, who I used to work with, takes this seriously and is keen to produce it as soon as he can. It will cover care and support for adults of all ages and will bring forward ideas for including an element of risk pooling into the system, which will help to protect people from the highest costs.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, that the Government have an important role in working with charities, businesses, councils and other organisations which are already doing great work in bringing people together. We also have to create an economy which allows the ever-increasing expenditure that the noble Lord desires, otherwise we will simply transfer the problems to our children and grandchildren, which is not what we want.
We expect to publish the first annual report on loneliness later this year.
There are a number of questions that noble Lords have asked but, in the interests of time, I hope they will allow me to write to them and copy other noble Lords in on the answers.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving me a couple of minutes. It has been an exceptional debate. My only regret is that it has not been at prime time, when more Members would have been here to hear the wonderful eloquence of the noble Baroness, Lady Redfern; the plea for art and culture from my noble friend Lord Howarth; the speech of my noble friend Lord O’Neill, who I welcome back from his hospital bed; and the contributions of all those noble Lords I have not mentioned. It has been a tremendous debate.
However, the Minister answered many questions on loneliness—he was helpful on that and other matters—but he has not answered the crucial question even though my noble friend Lord Browne put him under tremendous pressure. There were questions about the practicability of the BBC running this scheme—it will be impractical—and, on enforceability, whether the Government have the ability to make the BBC do what it apparently promised. I can assure the Minister that, as far as the TV licence issue is concerned, we will return to it again and again until we get a proper answer and action.
These older people, who have given so much to society, depend on TV for contact, news, entertainment and information. They deserve more from us and more from the Government, and we will return to this issue again and again until we get proper answers from the Government.
House adjourned at 5.24 pm.