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.