Older Persons: Provision of Public Services - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:25 pm on 13th June 2019.

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Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour 3:25 pm, 13th June 2019

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.