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.