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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:49 pm on 13th June 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Janke Baroness Janke Liberal Democrat 4:49 pm, 13th June 2019

My Lords, the BBC’s announcement that it will stop free licences for all but the most needy over-75s was greeted with shock, disbelief and outrage by pensioners, politicians and public alike, not just those affected. It seems a petty and miserable reneging on a principle and, given that these are the oldest pensioners, another assault on the people least able to fight back. It makes these pensioners pawns in a stately dance of death between the BBC and the Government, who are trying to shrug off their responsibilities. I support the speakers today who have said that this should be the responsibility of the Government, not the BBC. The information I have been given tells me that the BBC has a total of £5 billion, including £1 billion from overseas sales. Sky has £7 billion to spend on programming. Netflix will have $13 billion to spend on programmes. The current provision for pensioners will eventually cost £1 billion. As all noble Lords have said today, we value our national broadcasting company, the BBC, and all that it stands for. How can it possibly cope with this level of responsibility for pensioners’ concessions?

The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, spoke eloquently and made the case for keeping licences and bus passes. He talked about the “scourge of loneliness”. There are so many vulnerable pensioners. Many of the oldest are in social isolation and have depression and mental health issues. More than half of over-75s live alone. This is an absolutely awful reneging on a commitment that the Government gave to these pensioners. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord O’Neill, and the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, about the rather disturbing narrative that pensioners are all well off and do not need benefits. This may be true of some pensioners but it falls short of reality for many, particularly the most elderly, and is very divisive. As the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, said, there need to be good relationships between the young and the old and, by and large, there are.

Experience in my city showed me that many pensioners are living on shrinking resources but not qualifying for benefits. They are unable to afford entertainment so rely on their televisions to provide them with entertainment, news, stimulation and a sense of being part of a bigger world. Many pensioners in rented accommodation, particularly in urban settings, live in communities where there is no support network. They are in flats in places where other people do little more than sleep. Bus services, and a bus pass, and community transport are essential for them. Many noble Lords have spoken about the nature of prevention and how we need to keep people active. The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, spoke eloquently about areas of good cultural practice and gave many examples. We need to build on local experience and enable those. When I was leader of a city council, I tried to get budgets to combine. Budgets are compartmentalised, both in central government and across the NHS. We need to work much harder in that area. There is a lot of social prescribing now, but it tends to be about solving problems of illness rather than trying to prevent it.

Many in this Chamber support these benefits and believe they are essential. However, not all pensioners require them. The report of the Select Committee on intergenerational fairness raised a number of issues about them. I am sure we all know people who say that, though they are retired and are pensioners, they do not really need the winter fuel allowance. Most enjoy the bus pass, but perhaps sometimes feel that the money could be put to better use. If we want to keep these universal benefits, we have to consider exactly how we will pay for them. There are other ways of providing them.

The noble Lord, Lord Haselhurst, spoke about broadband, but unfortunately broadband is not available over wide stretches of the country. I know that in my city there are Wii sports competitions between pensioners in retirement homes and this is a really important feature. Certainly, the internet can provide lots of facilities for people. In some homes I know of, the internet has replaced the television in the room and the pensioners have a much more social experience. They watch television together rather than independently. So there are more ways of making pensioners’ lives happier and healthier, and of fighting social isolation.

The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, addressed the issue of the very different capacities of different groups of elderly people, and we need to recognise that. Good practice in many cities has pensioners delivering services to other pensioners and building on the strength of volunteering. Despite the need, in my view, to keep these universal benefits, we can build on good practice. We can look at cities and rural areas and see how good practice can be financed. People often have really good ideas and can do excellent things but just cannot raise the money to do them. Cuts to local councils have made services even rarer. I support keeping the universality of these benefits; on the other hand, a number of ways of financing them have been raised in the Chamber today.

My noble friend Lord Kirkwood spoke in a personal capacity about such things as the triple lock. The report mentions means testing, which I do not favour because of the cliff edge and the people who fall just short. However, there is an idea that the people in tax could be taxed on the value of some of these benefits; that is an area we could look at.

I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, for bringing this debate to the House and I very much hope that it will not be something that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, said, we do again and again. I certainly support her call for a proper strategy on social care. I hope that some of these ideas might be taken up by the Government and that we might make progress by taking the report of the Select Committee on intergenerational fairness into account in doing so.