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.