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.