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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:58 pm on 13th June 2019.

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Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (International Trade) 4:58 pm, 13th June 2019

My Lords, we owe a great debt of thanks to my noble friend Lord Foulkes for his perspicacity in spotting this issue and timing the debate in the way he has, but also for how he framed his Motion, allowing him to focus on two political nuggets of some depth that are quite hard to deal with in the context of a much wider debate on the question of loneliness. We have done a very good job today in covering the full range of issues that have come up. I think it is fair to say that this is one of the wicked issues—it is very hard for the Government to deal with such a broad range of things covering so many departments. Within our very wide-ranging discussion, the boundaries of the debate came from four or five main contributions; that is not in any sense to devalue others, but these are the ones that set us in the right place.

The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, made sure that in addition to discussing poverty, we did not lose the specificity of those who have a disability in the issues we are talking about. The noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay, had a concern, which she expressed very well, that we are in danger of making long life a misery, not a blessing. The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, made the interesting suggestion that we are getting hung up on age, which is probably a very bad basis for making policy; it is a point we need to think about. My noble friend Lord Howarth reminded us of the evidence on how effective creative work and creative partnerships are in combating loneliness. My noble friend Lord Bragg and others stressed that we should not risk the magnificent job that the BBC does for us day in, day out and year in, year out by asking it to do jobs that it is not properly constituted to do. My noble friend Lady Pitkeathley made a plea for sanity regarding our failure still to resolve the question of social policy: a policy merry-go-round has prevented us making progress in the way we should for far too long. That needs to be addressed and sorted. All speakers have been stressing how crucial a holistic approach must be to this whole question. Loneliness is the end product in a lot of a different areas.

Having said that, we should pay tribute to the Government for having grasped the nettle, as it were, of the policy on loneliness that needs to be addressed here. They are following up on the report by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness and coming forward with a strategy which, although it may need a lot more work now and in the future, certainly sets out the ambition, which is a good thing. Good specific proposals have been announced, such as expanding social prescribing, adding loneliness to ministerial portfolios and incorporating loneliness into ongoing policy decisions. These are important issues; the criticisms we have heard today should not be used to dismantle what the Government have done here, and we should listen to the Minister when he comes to respond on that. There is also a cross-departmental ministerial committee; that should be doing some work as well.

However, we need a bit more from the Government on the evidence regarding the impact of different initiatives. We do not really know what works here. Some research has been published but I think the Government are doing more; perhaps the Minister could update us on that. We need appropriate indicators of loneliness across all ages so that the Office for National Statistics can measure it properly. It is all very well talking about happiness and well-being in relation to GDP; we measure GDP and estimate the rest. Unless we have some hard figures, we will never be able to get to the bottom of this important issue. At the end of the day we also need reports, and I am sure that we are due one shortly. Can the Minister remind us when that is likely to happen?

Several noble Lords have pointed out that we make a mistake if we try to narrow this down to particular issues—strategies, tactics and who is responsible for what. The austerity agenda has been the context here, and the cuts to local government have not been discussed enough today: the closure of 428 day centres, 1,000 children’s centres, 600 youth centres and 478 public libraries; and cuts in funding for countless lunch clubs, befriending services, local voluntary groups and community centres. This all has a cost regarding what our society can do as a whole for those who suffer, and the capacity of organisations up and down the country to provide something of value.

That leads neatly into the question of bus services and public transport more generally. The bus figures are absolutely astonishing. The elderly have been particularly impacted by the cuts to bus services. Statistics reveal that since 2010, fares have risen faster than wages and passenger numbers have plummeted, and new research shows that average fares are likely to be 53% higher in 2022 than they were in 2010. This is not the way to make sure that people travel and meet people, and to go forward.

The biggest policy issue we have been discussing off and on throughout this whole debate is the BBC licence fee. This is both a direct attack on those who benefit from the services—in a way that has been described so well by noble Lords—and an example of the impact that austerity measures dressed up as public policy can have on our society. We now know that the BBC will charge all those not on pension credit the full licence fee, which raises the spectre of criminal penalties for those who are unable or unwilling to pay.

I have some questions about this, some of which were touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood. First, does the Minister agree that pensioner poverty, which halved between 1997 and 2010, is now on the rise again, from 1.6 million three years ago to 1.9 million now? It is forecast to pass 2 million by 2022. Does he accept also the figures quoted earlier in the debate that over-75s are almost 50% more likely to be in poverty than the 65 to 75 age group? What does that mean for public policy?

Secondly, have the Government considered how they will authorise the BBC to means test pensioners for their eligibility for the free licences? Does the legal power exist for the DWP to open up its records and allow BBC officials to access private information on the finances of the over-75s? If so, where is that power enacted, and can he give us the reference? If not, what legislative vehicle will be considered for this, as I presume under the GDPR it will require primary legislation? Who is paying the £72 million that it is estimated it will cost simply to administer this system?

Thirdly, what are the constitutional implications? Does it mean that the BBC, a private company established by royal charter, has become a taxing authority, with all that that implies? Can he confirm that the licence fee will still be decided by the Government and agreed by statutory instrument under the affirmative procedure, and therefore subject to a vote in Parliament? Does he agree with his right honourable friend Mr Damian Green, who pointed out in the other place that roughly one-third of pensioners eligible for pension credit do not claim it, which saves the Government about £3 billion a year? If even half of those eligible for pension credit now start claiming it to retain the free BBC licence, it seems that the Government will have shot themselves in the foot, because the net outcome will be a lot more expensive than maintaining the existing free provision.

Why are they continuing with this ridiculous policy? Is it, as my noble friend Lord Bragg said, just another attack by the hard right from the BBC under the guise of austerity? In the other place, the Secretary of State acknowledged that retaining the free licence fee concession would require primary legislation and implied that it would be hard to find parliamentary time for it. Given that we have virtually no legislation at the moment and are unlikely to have any for the rest of the Session, that is a pretty weak excuse.

As others have said, for the party opposite, nothing, least of all promises made in manifestoes, seems sacrosanct at the moment. Making a commitment about a major policy issue cannot be written off as a mistake. When it was discovered, trying to persuade the BBC to bail them out is a disgraceful way to behave.

This issue is a test of honour, integrity and truthfulness. Decisions such as this will sully the reputation of the party opposite for years to come. The Government should sort it out with a simple amendment to the Digital Economy Act—in a three-line Bill, if that is what it takes. The Minister would have the support of these Benches if he chose to do that.