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In 2015, during the funding negotiations that took place as part of the BBC charter renewal, the United Kingdom Government, in a callous and irresponsible act, transferred responsibility to support older people by shifting the responsibility for funding the cost of providing free TV licences for people over 75 directly on to the BBC’s shoulders. That move was about the UK Government cutting its funding to the BBC and finding a means for the latter to take the blame for those cuts.
In June this year, the BBC announced that it would scrap free TV licences for over-75s, except for those households with one person in receipt of pension credit. Means testing eligibility for the concession will result in 3.7 million older people having to pay for their TV licences from June 2020.
Access to free television programming for the over-75s through free TV licences was a welcome announcement by the then Labour Government in 1999. Continued by successive Governments, such free licences were seen as an important welfare action. They enabled older people, who frequently spend more time at home, to be kept informed and entertained and to be treated with empathy and understanding.
“The BBC received a settlement that was conditional upon their paying for TV licences for the over-75s. They should cough up.”
The Sun of 4 November, which said that
“he was working hard to thrash out a solution so that no elderly viewers had to pay.”
On numerous occasions, the UK Government has stated its disappointment with the BBC’s decision, saying that it clearly wants and expects the BBC to continue the concession—one that the UK Government used to fund from the Department for Work and Pensions grant.
Where does the UK Government actually stand on the issue? The Conservative Party manifesto for 2017 said:
“We will maintain all other pensioner benefits, including free bus passes, eye tests, prescriptions and TV licences, for the duration of this parliament.”
In 2015, the UK Government did not want to continue to pay for free TV licences; in 2017, it said that it would continue to pay for them. In 2019, the Prime Minister said that the BBC should “cough up” for TV licences. The Conservatives are all over the place on the issue and cannot be trusted by pensioners, who deserve better. The UK Government should never have foisted responsibility for funding this welfare initiative on to the BBC in the first place.
The Scottish Government has repeatedly made its views known on the issue. In July 2015, following the decision, I wrote to the then UK Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, John Whittingdale, expressing my disappointment that the decision was made with no consultation with the Scottish Government. As the Deputy Presiding Officer will be aware, that is a clear breach of the Smith commission agreement on the BBC. As recently as 13 June, my colleague the Minister for Older People and Equalities, Christina McKelvie, wrote to the UK Government urgently requesting that the decision be reconsidered.
The UK Government has shamelessly pushed welfare policy on to the BBC, with scant regard to the consequences. Of course, this is not the first failure of the UK Government to consider the welfare of people across the UK and in Scotland. This year, the Scottish Government has continued to invest more than £100 million to mitigate the worst impacts of UK Government welfare reforms. That is part of the £1.4 billion that we have spent to support low-income households in 2018-19.
I fundamentally disagree with the UK Government’s refusal to support people who are over 75 to have free TV licences and its refusal to shoulder its responsibility. I am not alone in that view: recent reports from committees in the House of Commons and the House of Lords state that welfare policy is not the responsibility of the BBC. There have been two petitions upholding that view. The UK Parliament debated the issue on 15 July after a petition reached almost 172,000 signatures, but the UK Government did not alter its position and continues to blame the BBC. On 1 August, Age UK handed a petition to 10 Downing Street in which more than 630,000 people voiced their disapproval of the policy.
It is interesting that the Office for Budget Responsibility has also raised concerns about the policy. In July, it published its annual “Fiscal risks report”, in which it said:
“shifting the burden of a welfare benefit ... to the BBC to reduce the deficit appears likely to have fiscally costly unintended consequences”.
The fiscal risks report highlights that pension credit claims increased in the four weeks immediately following the BBC’s announcement. The Scottish Government wants older people to claim what they are entitled to, having worked all their lives, but it is not the BBC’s role to become involved in welfare policy and encourage people to sign up for the pension credit to which they are entitled.
The UK Government’s actions to evade its welfare responsibility will result in greater costs to the public purse. Linking the free TV licence to pension credit might actually increase the uptake of that benefit. We want eligible people to take up their benefits, but I point out, as the OBR pointed out, that if even 250,000 out of the 1.3 million people claim pension credit who did not previously do so, it will cost the Treasury an estimated £745 million. There is, therefore, not just a moral case but a strong financial case for reversing the policy.
Pension credit uptake is further impacted by the changes that the UK Government implemented on 15 May, which affect mixed-age couples where one partner is of pension age and the other is of working age. Pensioners will no longer be able to apply for pension credit if their partner is of working age. Instead, they will need to apply for the now notorious universal credit until the partner reaches state pension age. Our Scottish Government analysis has shown that that could lead to an annual loss of as much as £7,000 for affected couples, because pension credit entitlements are typically higher than universal credit. Our estimates indicate that in 2023-24 around 5,600 Scottish households could be affected by the policy.
Of course, women have been affected by other changes made by the UK Government. More than 2 million WASPI women—women against state pension inequality—paid their national insurance contributions in the full expectation that they would receive their state pension at a certain age, only for the goalposts to be moved by the UK Government. They will now be forced to work longer and they will be doubly affected by the changes for mixed-age couples.
Ultimately, all those welfare changes impact on people’s lives: those aged over 75 will now have the automatic benefit of a free TV licence ripped away. Some might be able to afford to fill the gap every month, but many thousands will be worrying about the choices that they will have to make when it comes to their monthly outgoings if they have to pay the licence fee. Forcing people to make difficult choices about what they can and cannot afford is not right.
For many people, TV is a lifeline. We know that older people in our society are at greater risk of social isolation and loneliness, as the Labour Party amendment, which we will support, points out. They might not be able to get out and about as much. TV provides a link to what is going on in the world. It offers people the chance to be entertained and to escape. Viewing figures from Ofcom show that people over 54 watch the most TV of any age group in Scotland—around five and a half hours a day on average. Access to television allows older people to enjoy educational documentaries, listen to news and current affairs, hear stories and see images of countries that they have never visited. TV can expand people’s knowledge and horizons. It can provide shared experiences, connection and entertainment for people to talk about with their families. There is a need for companionship, friendship and connection and older people need that as much as anybody else.
Destructive policies such as the one that was proposed and is being implemented by the UK Government will cause only harm to people who are trying to enjoy their retirement after a long working life.
In Scotland, the largest increase in population over the past few years has been in the over-75 age group, and the numbers are projected to further increase. It is inexcusable to allow or support policies that disadvantage our older people, who have already contributed so much and continue to contribute.
The Scottish Government supports our older people, yet our ambitions are negatively impacted by Westminster, time and time again. The UK Government’s social policies should be funded by the UK Government. Licence fee funds should be devoted to delivering the BBC’s public purposes, including the purpose to
“help people understand and engage with the world around them”, which is vital for older people.
Public service broadcasting should be universally accessible, and older people should not be denied their part in that. Let me be absolutely clear—in the 2015 BBC charter renewal settlement, the UK Government gave the BBC a Trojan horse, paving the way for public service broadcasting to be undermined by creating conditions that weaken the public broadcasting model.
The BBC has made many complaints about the Government’s policy, which was about tying the BBC’s hands behind its back and telling the BBC to take it or leave it.
At a time when the BBC faces unprecedented competition in a rapidly changing communications environment, it is important that the public service model is properly funded so that it can be healthy and competitive.
I think that the UK Government knew exactly what it was doing when it made sure that the BBC would carry the can for its unpopular policy. It is difficult to comprehend the UK Government’s position. We should be celebrating our older people. We should be thankful that people are living longer, healthier lives and we should be allowing them to enjoy the third age. The UK Government’s policy is a colossal failure in social policy making. The issue is rightly being debated in the Scottish Parliament. We must stand up for the over-75s and demand that the UK Government pay for the free licences once again.
That the Parliament believes that the UK Government’s decision to stop funding free TV licences for people over 75 was wrong; considers that the BBC should not be expected to use the licence fee to fund a welfare policy and calls for the UK Government to fully fund free TV licences for all over 75s; notes that the decision to shift this cost to the BBC was taken in secret discussions by the UK Government on the setting of the licence fee; believes that the licence fee should be set independently of the UK Government to decouple the setting of the fee from any undue influence that links it to wider funding of initiatives that should be the responsibility of government; commends the importance of universal access to publicly-funded public service broadcasting, and deplores the impact that this decision could have on older people’s lives.
I will set some background first. Television has the wonderful ability to transport us from our sitting room to anywhere around the world. It has the power to inspire people to see things differently and to question the norm. Let us face it: for £154.50, the BBC does offer good value and every service that it provides is valued by someone across our society. Television also has the ability to shape public opinion: consider how influential the vivid and resplendent images of David Attenborough’s “Blue Planet” have been. They have enacted societal change in how we view our planet and plastic pollution. That a TV series has achieved such a large shift in public opinion on an issue is colossal.
For most of us, television is an important connection with the outside world that informs and entertains. It is not just a medium for keeping abreast of the latest developments across the UK and the world but an important social tool. That is why we have some sympathy, and empathy, with Claire Baker’s amendment for Labour. We know that television can tackle social isolation, as Fiona Hyslop, the cabinet secretary, said, especially for those who cannot socialise outside the home due to mobility issues. Some 100,000 Scots experience social isolation, so a TV licence is very important in their day-to-day lives. Those people enjoy watching the energetic dancing in “Strictly Come Dancing” on a Saturday or the roaring engines in “Top Gear” and such programmes not only provide entertainment but help tackle social isolation.
Fundamentally, television should be accessible to all. That is why we Conservatives are frustrated at the decision to remove the free television licence, as we expected the BBC to continue that important concession. Lord Hall said in July 2015 that the deal would give the BBC “financial stability”. He said, to counter criticisms of the deal, that it had to be seen as an entire package: the modernisation of the licence fee, the removal of part of the top slicing and a commitment to the licence fee going up alongside inflation. He said that those things and one or two other things meant that the BBC could plan with a sense of “financial stability.”
There is consensus across the chamber that the UK Government should get round the table with the BBC to find an appropriate solution.
Not just now.
From the off, let us get the facts straight on where the responsibility lies for TV licences for the over-75s.
To better understand the crux of the matter, we must go back to July 2015. A funding deal was agreed between the Government and the BBC as part of the charter renewal, the key element of which was that the BBC would take over funding of free TV licences for the over-75s in return for certain concessions. For example, the Government agreed to close the iPlayer loophole—the cause of significant income loss for the BBC—and said that legislation to that effect would be brought before Parliament in the near future.
However, the BBC should have communicated earlier the likelihood that it would not be able to carry on the concession from 2020. The UK Government has guaranteed that the level of the licence fee will increase with inflation until 2022, which will ensure that the BBC continues to deliver high-quality, distinctive content for all audiences. None of us disagrees with that.
Under the BBC’s current plans, the poorest pensioners will continue to be helped, as the BBC stated that those who are eligible for pension credit would still receive a free TV licence. We are unhappy that the BBC’s decision does not cover all over-75s, and it concerns me that 12,000 over-75s in my constituency will be affected by the loss of the exemption.
Members will be aware that the BBC is operationally independent. Taxpayers want the independent public service broadcaster to use its substantial licence fee income appropriately to ensure that it delivers for UK audiences. In 2018, the BBC received more than £3.8 billion in licence fee income—the highest ever amount—and it receives more than £1 billion a year from commercial work, such as selling content abroad. That income must be reinvested appropriately. As I said, people want the BBC to use its substantial licence fee income in an appropriate way to ensure that it delivers for UK audiences, which includes showing restraint on salaries for senior staff.
Although the BBC has a responsibility to ensure that it manages its budget appropriately, it announced the most narrowly defined option for reform of the over-75s concession. It is important to note that that was the BBC’s decision and not that of the Government, because Parliament legislated to give the BBC full responsibility for that from 2020. I understand that there are members who do not agree with it, but perhaps I did not agree with them on the occasions that they did not support institutions with the word “British” in them.
My UK Government colleagues, including the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, have already pressed the BBC to consider what further help it can provide in the light of the decision. We want the secretary of state to continue to push the BBC to continue to support free licences. My colleague Jackson Carlaw was explicit in his opposition to the BBC’s decision when he met the Prime Minister a few months ago.
I reiterate my dismay and the dismay of other Conservative members at the BBC’s decision. Television is important to many people, but especially older people. The TV not only offers light entertainment; it can also be used to tackle social isolation.
In the motion lodged by the cabinet secretary, it is clear that the SNP would rather blame the UK Government instead of working constructively. That motion just kicks the can down the road when it comes to finding a resolution for those over-75s who must have a free TV licence.
The SNP’s announcement is simply a rehash of Jeremy Corbyn’s policy. Last year, the Labour leader announced plans for an independent body to set the licence fee. I believe that he has made such a commitment in his manifesto, which was published today. When it comes to its separatist agenda, the SNP has failed to explain what would happen to the BBC in Scotland. Only Conservative members will continue to work with our colleagues and ensure that we see real action, by getting the BBC to find a viable solution.
The ball is firmly in the BBC’s court in relation to responsibility; the BBC director general made that clear in 2015, when he said:
“the cost of the over-75s on us has been more than matched by the deal coming back for the BBC.”
We want the BBC to honour that, and we join the call by the UK Government for the BBC to find and support a resolution to the matter, in order to keep licences for over-75s free.
I move amendment S5M-19967.2, to leave out from “UK Government’s decision to stop” to end and insert:
“decision of the BBC to cease funding free TV licences for people aged over 75 is regrettable; recognises that, in 2015, a new funding deal was agreed between the UK Government and the BBC, which the BBC Director General, Tony Hall, acknowledged as a ‘strong deal for the BBC’; recognises that a key element of the deal was that the BBC would take over funding of free TV licences for people aged over 75 in return for certain concessions; acknowledges that, as an independent public service broadcaster, it is the responsibility of the BBC to ensure that its substantial licence fee income is used effectively to ensure that it fully delivers for UK audiences; believes that taxpayers want to see the BBC using its licence fee income in an appropriate way; notes that disadvantaged older people will continue to be helped, as Pension Credit recipients will receive a free TV licence; believes that television is an important educational and entertainment medium for all age cohorts, and, while repeating calls from the UK Government for the BBC to support free TV licences for people aged over 75, calls on the UK Government to find and support a resolution on the matter.”
Free TV licences for the over-75s were introduced by a Labour Government under Gordon Brown as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1999, with the cost being covered via general taxation. The move, which was part of action to help reduce poverty among pensioners, involved the BBC being paid directly by the Government to replace the income that was being lost from licences. The concession was broadly understood as a top-up entitlement for the over-75s that sought to deliver improvements via universal benefits for older people.
The introduction of the free TV licence came alongside expanded social care access. It was part of a balance between means-tested benefits such as pension credits and universal benefits, all of which sought to prevent older people from experiencing poverty. It was introduced as a social benefit.
When the Conservative Government said that it would no longer fund the scheme and that support would be phased out by 2020, leaving the BBC to take on the cost of £745 million a year, that went completely against the basis of the funding of free licences as a welfare policy. Labour was and is completely opposed to that decision and firmly of the belief that the Conservative Government was wrong to outsource social policy in that way.
The deal that was struck in 2015 between the then Chancellor, George Osborne, and the BBC was arrived at behind closed doors and in a very short timescale. Such discussions should not be backroom deals and they should not be forced at short notice by the Government, with no attempt at transparency or consultation.
Setting the licence fee should not be the sole responsibility of Government. The process must be transparent, and there needs to be clear accountability for the decisions that are taken. The viewers’ voice must be heard. Negotiations should no longer take place behind closed doors, with little input from the BBC and none from viewers.
The BBC is going through an exciting time. Here in Scotland, we have the new channel, there has been an overhaul of the iPlayer and there are more co-productions and international collaborations, but it is also a challenging time, as there is an increasingly varied and competitive market. There is a lot of public support for the BBC and its role as a public sector broadcaster, but the viewer needs to feel greater ownership of the BBC and must be able to express that value. The setting of the licence fee must be free from Government social policy and must be done in the interests of the viewer and the listener.
While today’s debate is focused on the licence fee for the over-75s, the Tory Government has previous form in this area. In 2013, it was announced that the funding for the BBC’s valued World Service would transfer from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the BBC licence fee. At the time, Peter Horrocks, the director of the World Service, said that the service was
“determined that this unexpected cut should not damage existing services to audiences”, and that although the BBC would protect and continue the service, it would
“not be able to invest in new programmes and platforms as planned.”
Again, there was no consultation and no dialogue. That funding had existed for decades, and although the service had changed significantly, the Government had given no indication that it expected it to end; it simply withdrew its support.
The BBC’s announcement that, from June 2020, only people over 75 who were in receipt of pension credit would be entitled to have their licence fee paid for by the BBC was a direct result of the Conservative Government’s decision. The fact that the Conservatives sought to frame it as some fault of the BBC—they continue to do that this afternoon—rather than accept it as their responsibility is disgraceful. The BBC is responsible for the decision only in so far as the Conservative Government forced it to make it. That the Conservative amendment continues to insist on calling it a BBC decision, with no context, is at best disingenuous and at worst shameless.
The subsequent position that was taken by the BBC followed a consultation that closed earlier this year and involved research with stakeholders and members of the public. What emerged from that consultation was the difficulty of the choices facing the BBC in taking the decision with regard to balancing the impact on older people against its responsibility to delivery programmes and services for everyone.
To fully fund the continuation of the full exemption would cost the BBC £745 million of its budget—around a fifth. According to the BBC’s annual report and accounts for 2018, that equates to the amount that is spent on all of BBC Two, BBC Three, BBC Four, the BBC News channel, CBBC and CBeebies. To put it another way, it equates to the amount that is spent on all its sport, drama, entertainment and comedy programmes. That would represent a dramatic change in the BBC’s income, and I find it difficult to understand why the Conservatives have dismissed the importance of that figure this afternoon and have not recognised the impact that fully funding what was previously a social policy would have on the BBC.
In Scotland, the number of households that are expected to lose their free TV licence next year approaches 250,000. I welcome the briefing that Age Scotland provided for this debate. It highlights research showing that half of over-75s say that their main form of company is the TV or a pet, and that 100,000 older people in Scotland feel lonely all or most of the time. The risk of isolation and loneliness is compounded for many who are already taking difficult decisions on which bills they can afford. A petition by Age UK to save free TV licences for everyone over 75 attracted more than 630,000 signatures, all demanding that the Government take back responsibility for the funding of free TV licences. Research that Age UK carried out found that more than 40 per cent of over-75s in the UK would not be able to afford a TV licence without cutting back on essentials such as heating or food.
The decision to change entitlement to free TV licences means that pensioners will be required to prove receipt of pension credit in order to get the exemption. It is estimated that around two fifths of those eligible for pension credit are not currently claiming it, some because they do not know that they can claim or how to claim and some because of the stigma that is attached to it. In Scotland, it is estimated that more than 122,000 entitled households are currently not receiving pension credit, and, as the cabinet secretary highlighted, there are further issues around the rules for mixed-age couples and for those who are marginally above the threshold for the benefit.
On wider impacts, there is the potential for increased strain on public services if vulnerable people become more isolated or have mental health issues as a result of a loss of the companionship that TV can provide. There are also particular concerns regarding older people with dementia and how they will be affected. Although some will receive pension credit and thus be eligible for a free licence, an estimated 553,000 older people with dementia in the UK are expected to lose their free licence, including more than 140,000 who are aged over 90.
The Labour amendment seeks to highlight the impacts that the decision will have on older people, many of whom already live in relative poverty. The additional economic and social pressures that they will face as a result of the Conservative Government’s action should be recognised. A Labour Government would restore free TV licences for all over-75s, and I hope that we can reach a consensus this afternoon that that matter is the responsibility of Government, and that free TV licences should be restored. Universal access to publicly funded public service broadcasting has many benefits, particularly for older people, and must be maintained.
I move amendment S5M-19967.1, to insert after “public service broadcasting”:
“; recognises research from Age Scotland that 100,000 older people in Scotland feel lonely all or most of the time and that, for around half of over 75s, TV or a pet is their main form of company; highlights the additional financial strain that this decision places on older people, including those already living in relative poverty”.
I am sorry to say this but, because it is a quiet chamber today, I can hear everything that the members at the back of the chamber are saying, even though they are having quiet conversations, and I am sure that they do not want me to.
As we have heard, that cut had been explicitly ruled out by the UK Government in its 2017 election manifesto, but it was passed on to the BBC, and the BBC had to make that difficult announcement.
Older people will be forced to pay an additional £154 a year for their TV licences. That may not be much to some people but, for the poorest households, it is a significant proportion of their income. The BBC’s analysis suggests that, for the poorest 10 per cent of households, it is as much as 2 per cent of annual income. In looking at that fact, we should not forget that, as Age Scotland tells us in its briefing,
“The UK has the lowest State Pension of all the most advanced economies in the world.”
That is woeful and not something that we should be proud of, and this further cut beggars belief.
We also know for a fact that poverty among older people is rising, not falling. Since 2014, relative poverty among pensioners in Scotland has jumped by 3 per cent, so the last thing that they need is to have to pay for their TV licence. It is no wonder that a survey conducted by Age UK has found that, if the concession is scrapped, more than 40 per cent of people aged over 75 either will not be able to afford a TV licence or will have to cut back on essentials to pay for it. Of those who said that they would have to cut back, a quarter plan to reduce spending on heating and a fifth plan to reduce spending on food.
As we have discussed, the latest figures show that, across the UK, 60 per cent of those who are eligible for pension credit receive it, and the figure is as low as 50 per cent among couples. According to estimates by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, around 130,000 Scots would be eligible for but would not receive the TV licence under the proposed scheme. In a system that is based on pension credit passporting, 600,000 UK households that are eligible for but not claiming pension credit would not get the free licence.
The plans are based on 75 per cent take-up of pension credit, which would be a considerable improvement, but there is not a sufficiently robust plan to achieve that. The BBC has said that it will contact all older people who are impacted by the change to advise them to apply for pension credit. However, as a member of the Social Security Committee, which is midway through an investigation into benefit take-up, I know that it is a very complex area and that older people in particular can be extremely reluctant to claim benefits even when they are entitled to them. It simply makes no sense to put that work on to the BBC. It requires skill sets that a public service broadcaster might not have, and why should it have them?
We have heard that the change will be particularly unfair for older people with younger partners, who can no longer claim pension credit as a result of further changes that the UK Government introduced this year. A couple with one person over 75 and one under 65 would lose £7,000 as a result of being forced to claim universal credit and an additional £154 as a result of having to pay for a TV licence.
The point has been well made that TV is a vital lifeline for many older Scots. According to Age Scotland, half of over-75s say that their main form of company is the television or a pet. That is sad and, as a Parliament and a nation, we should strive to address it. One good thing about this debate is that it is raising that issue. We know that 100,000 older people in Scotland feel lonely all or most of the time and that 200,000 can go half a week without a visit or call from anyone. The proposal will mean that many older Scots who cannot afford to pay will lose what is, sadly, their only source of company for large parts of the week.
Annabelle Ewing raised the issue of accountability. The free TV licence for the over-75s is in essence a social security benefit, albeit in kind. The UK Government introduced that benefit and should remain responsible for it. However, the Government has outsourced responsibility for that benefit to the BBC. That sets a worrying precedent, as it is Governments that should make and be accountable for social security policy, rather than a public body that is not elected and is not directly accountable to the public. Frankly, that is a bizarre move, and I have to ask: whatever next?
Rachael Hamilton began by speaking for more than a minute about the importance of TV. Frankly, I find it baffling that there is not more of a concerted effort among the Scottish Conservatives to get the UK Government to change its policy, which is simply wrong-headed. I will close by reiterating the fact that
“The UK has the lowest State Pension of all the most advanced economies in the world”, so the proposed change to the TV licence is the last thing that our over-75s need.
For almost 20 years, individuals who are aged over 75 have been entitled to free TV licences. The UK has one of the lowest state pensions in any of the advanced western economies. When free TV licences were introduced, they were widely seen as a means of increasing pensioners’ benefits without having to increase the state pension. Other benefits such as the winter fuel allowance have been introduced and have been seen in the same light. I trust that the UK Government has no plans to end that benefit, too, but, knowing what it has done with TV licences, I am a little worried about that.
We all know that broadcasting and TV licences are reserved matters for the UK Parliament, but that does not mean that we in the Scottish Parliament cannot take a view on decisions that have been made by the UK Government and Parliament that affect the people of Scotland.
The BBC said that any pensioner who is in receipt of pension credit will not have to pay for their TV licence, but about 300,000 over-75s will lose out on a having a free licence and will have to pay the almost £155 fee themselves. No doubt many pensioners will be able to afford the fee—maybe that is what the Conservatives are thinking—but there is also no doubt that many over-75s whose income is just above the pension credit level cannot. There will also be many who do not even claim pension credit.
Almost every member who has spoken has referred to Age Scotland’s briefing, and I make no apology for reiterating what we have heard from it, as it bears repeating. According to that extremely important and effective briefing, 60 per cent of those pensioners who are eligible to claim pension credit do not—122,000 households. It is the welfare of those individuals that must concern us, and that is why it is appropriate for us to debate this welfare issue.
Age Scotland also tells us that 100,000 older people in Scotland feel lonely all or most of the time, and the Greens beat me to saying that over half of over-75s say that their main form of company is the TV or a pet. I agree with Age Scotland that having free TV licences for the over-75s is a welfare policy—it clearly is—and that it was wrong for the BBC to be given the responsibility of withdrawing free licences by the UK Government.
The Liberal Democrats believe that the independence of the BBC needs to be protected, and that the UK Government therefore needs to set up a BBC licence fee commission to do just that. We support the Scottish Government’s motion because it reflects what we believe to be right. The licence fee needs to be set independently of the UK Government to decouple the setting of the fee from any undue influence that links it to wider funding of initiatives that should rightly be the responsibility of our UK Government.
We also whole-heartedly support Labour’s amendment highlighting the points that I have already made. However, we will not support the Conservative amendment, which tries to shift the blame on this withdrawal of free TV licences for the over-75s to the BBC itself. I heard Rachael Hamilton’s argument that the BBC had agreed to do this, which reminds me of a certain phrase used by Don Corleone in “The Godfather”—“We’re going to make them an offer they can’t refuse.”
I find the Conservative amendment disappointing, to say the least. The sad bit is that it completely ignores the estimated 122,000 households in which pensioners could claim pension credit but do not. Where is the reference to those people on the very lowest incomes in the Conservative amendment? They are not there; they are completely ignored.
Universal benefits such as free TV licences for the over-75s and the winter fuel allowance have been successful in helping the lowest income pensioners particularly because they are not means tested. I do not believe for one minute that the Conservatives do not understand that; they are very intelligent people. Rachael Hamilton is a very intelligent person. [
.] No, they are, which compounds the problem. In my view it can only mean that they are not interested in those people who fall through the pension credit safety net; otherwise they would not have lodged the amendment in the form that it is in. We will not be supporting that amendment at decision time.
I am pleased to speak in this important Scottish Government debate on TV licences for the over-75s. As has already been said, the background is that back in 2015, in what can only be termed a shady deal with the BBC, the UK Tory Government proposed that the BBC should take over the funding of TV licences for the over-75s from June 2020 in exchange, it would appear, for a promise of increases in the TV licence fee. Those discussions were far from transparent and, indeed, were described as being conducted in
The next, all-too-predictable development was the BBC announcement in June this year to the effect that free TV licences for the over-75s would no longer be of universal application but would be restricted from June 2020 to those households in receipt of pension credit, thereby removing some 3.75 million households from entitlement to a free TV licence. At the same time, the UK Tory Government sneaked out, by way of a written statement in May, the bombshell announcement that pension credit could no longer be claimed by households in which a couple included an individual of working age. Rather, mixed-age couples would be forced to go down the route of claiming universal credit—a move that was likely to cost households up to £7,000 per annum.
As if that was not bad enough for hard-pressed pensioners in Scotland and the rest of the UK, we are all too well aware of the consistently low take-up rate for pension credit. That has been a perennial problem from the outset, since pension credit was introduced in the early 2000s. I recall raising the issue when I served as the MP for Perth in the House of Commons. I asked Labour ministers what estimate had been made of the likely take-up and, unsurprisingly, I did not receive any credible answers at that time.
In fact, the take-up of pension credit has been flat-lining at around 64 per cent under successive Labour, Tory-Liberal and Tory UK Governments. It is of considerable concern that a House of Commons library paper of 19 July records that in 2016-17,
“Up to 1.3 million families who were entitled to receive Pension Credit did not claim”, and that
“Up to £3.5 billion of available Pension Credit” went unspent. What a cynical approach on the part of successive Westminster Governments to state pension provision in the United Kingdom, notwithstanding that, as has been mentioned, pensions are an entitlement based on a social contract on the part of the individual with the state. The cynical approach to state pension provision on the part of the UK Government is evident in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and European Union league tables of pension provision, where we see that the UK is consistently among the lowest.
That is simply not good enough because, as we have heard, loneliness and isolation are significant problems for far too many pensioners, and the TV is their companion. We know that many pensioners across Scotland and the UK are very much up against it financially, with the paltry state pension on offer exacerbated by Tory-Liberal and Tory austerity years. We know, too, that the entitlement to pension credit has been slashed by the Tory Government and, as I have said, take-up on the part of those who will remain entitled is still far too low. In that context, the restriction of the free TV licence for over-75s to those people in receipt of pension credit is a very cynical ploy indeed.
Let us be clear that it is not, at heart, the fault of the BBC. The UK Tory Government’s attempts to deflect blame, which we have also heard from the Tory front bench today, will simply not work. The BBC is a public broadcaster. Its founding charter does not provide for it to be an arm of the Department for Work and Pensions in administering the benefits system. It is not a Government public body. The responsibility for the administration of the benefits system is totally the responsibility of Government and it comes as no surprise to anyone that Boris Johnson is trying to abdicate his responsibility.
That is just not good enough. Pensioners in my Cowdenbeath constituency, across Scotland, and indeed across the United Kingdom, deserve so much better. The UK Tory Government must reinstate the free TV licence for the over-75s. It must take responsibility for that and, as a matter of principle, it must not farm out the administration of state benefits to unaccountable non-governmental bodies.
I call on the UK Tory Government to reverse the cuts to pension credit and to explain what it will do to increase the take-up of pension credit. I also call on the UK Government to start treating pensioners with dignity and respect. I am thinking of issues such as the UK Government’s treatment of the WASPI women, whom it continues to ignore, Iain Duncan Smith’s ridiculous proposal to put the retirement age back to 75—a proposal that has not been ruled out by any UK or Scottish Parliament Tory politician, as far as I am aware—and its track record of providing one of the lowest state pensions in the OECD countries.
The UK Tory Government has failed pensioners. Tory politicians, both MPs and MSPs, have failed pensioners. I am sure that pensioners will reflect on those matters in the weeks immediately ahead.
I welcome the opportunity today to speak on the subject of TV licences for the over-75s. Many such individuals rely on their television daily. It is far more than just a colourful screen in the corner. It provides not only entertainment in the quiet, lonely hours, but a window to and a connection with a larger outside world to which someone may no longer have access. In some situations, television may be someone’s only consistent form of interaction and connection. It fulfils the role of a necessary lifeline to those individuals in a variety of ways. The concession scheme made it possible for all pensioners—no matter their financial status—to have access to the lifeline, thereby providing them with an essential part of their overall wellbeing.
As we all know, in July, the BBC announced its policy change on TV licences for the over-75s, which will take effect next year. The policy is, without doubt, unsatisfactory and disappointing, as it leaves millions of pensioners without guaranteed access to that integral lifeline. In my West Scotland region, more than 62,000 individuals will be directly impacted by the change.
I am grateful that the final decision does not include discarding the concession scheme in its entirety. Those over 75 who receive pension credit are the poorest pensioners and certainly in need of support during this period of their lives. I appreciate that the BBC recognises that and included it in its decision-making process, but it is not enough, and I repeat the calls for the BBC to support free TV licences for people over 75.
I n the case of the charter renewal, the BBC needed to ensure that there was a lot of involvement, so that it could to understand its market and who uses its services. Therefore, quite rightly, there was a shift of responsibility in relation to the new charter as part of the deal.
Those individuals who qualify for pension credit are not the only group that is especially disadvantaged by the removal of free licences. I am an armed forces’ veteran, and it is well known that I am a strong advocate of supporting our veterans. They deserve our utmost respect and support in return for the brave and essential services that they provide to our country.
In the same year that the Government implemented the TV licences scheme, the armed forces covenant was introduced to the public. The covenant clearly states that we as a nation will not allow our servicemen and servicewomen to become disadvantaged as a result of their service to us and that we will sustain and reward them for their services.
I mention the covenant as a reminder of our obligations to our veterans. Many veterans, no matter how they serve, come home with injuries, disabilities and other health concerns that continue to impact them physically, psychologically and financially into their pensioner years. The additional care that those conditions require adds costs to many veterans’ pensions and makes it more difficult, if not impossible, to pay for a television licence, which can result in that group losing its much-needed access to the BBC’s services.
Removing the assistance of free licences from our veterans takes away a service that is essential for warding off the loneliness that many of them experience. Like many of their peers, veterans can suffer from the loneliness that comes from growing older. That age-related loneliness is often heightened by the loneliness and isolation that is related to serving in the forces. Studies have shown that veterans are more likely to experience loneliness than the general population, especially those who experienced trauma while serving. Television can and does play a vital role in mitigating the loneliness that they experience. To remove access to that tool risks going against the armed forces covenant. It means that our veterans could be further disadvantaged by a direct consequence of military service. To ensure that they do not lose access to television, an exemption to the fee must be included for them.
I recognise that veterans are not the only group that faces specific challenges. It would be naive to have such a view, and this conversation should not revolve around only those who are most disadvantaged by the policy change or those who are most in need of television. The policy impacts all pensioners and they should all be included. Television plays a different role for each individual pensioner, but it is important for the overall wellbeing and standard of living of all of them. As such, the scheme should be considered and treated as a social care concern that necessitates careful consideration by the BBC.
With that in mind, in order to create a policy that better addresses the issue at hand, I would welcome discussions between the BBC and the UK Government. I hope that, where possible, the Scottish Government will be open to making constructive contributions to those conversations. No matter the course taken, it is important that the independence of the BBC from any Government is maintained. That independence allows the BBC to provide the public with high-quality news services and programmes.
The member makes a valid point that the BBC should be independent. How can the BBC be independent if it is carrying out a Government social welfare policy of funding for over-75s?
As I said to Mike Rumbles earlier, that was part of the negotiated deal. We need to grow up and accept that that is what happens when we negotiate. The new deal came in for the new age and, therefore, the BBC needed to take responsibilities. A company, as well as a Government, has social responsibilities.
As work is done on improving the policy, the excellent level of the BBC’s services and the trust that the UK public has in them should not be jeopardised.
I would welcome continued conversations to revise and reverse the disappointing over-75s licence fee policy that the BBC put forward. Although it is positive that those on pension credit will continue to receive a free TV licence fee, it does not address the many serious drawbacks that groups such as veterans over the age of 75 will face as a result of the removal of their exemption.
I appreciate why you made that speech and I am not saying that you have done the wrong thing but, as a huge part of it was to do with special provision for welfare, it would have been useful if that had been in the Conservative amendment. The point of an amendment is to give notice to the chamber about what your arguments will be.
Page 66 of “Forward Together”, the Conservative Party’s 2017 election manifesto, said:
“We will maintain all other pensioner benefits, including free bus passes, eye tests, prescriptions and TV licences, for the duration of this parliament.”
That reads as a clear promise to pensioners that their free TV licences would remain intact. Nevertheless, in June of this year, the UK Tory Government announced that it would scrap the free television licence for 3.7 million over-75s across the UK, a plan that will come into effect in June 2020. It will impact on 328,000 Scottish pensioners, who will now have to pay £154.50 a year or face a £1,000 fine.
Although its manifesto promised to maintain the free licence, the UK Tory Government outsourced the responsibility for television licence support for over-75s to the BBC, which deliberated and decided to provide free TV licences only to those who can prove that they are in receipt of pension credit, a means-tested benefit that is designed to help pensioners who are struggling to make ends meet. Will the Tories tell us how they means test for loneliness and social exclusion? What about those who are just above the threshold for claiming pension credit, whom the yearly fee could push below the poverty line? Nearly one third of over-75s across the UK live on or below that poverty line and, according to Age Scotland, 122,000 pensioners in Scotland—around 40 per cent of those who are eligible—do not claim pension credit. Perhaps that is because they do not know that they are eligible, they would struggle to apply or they are simply embarrassed about needing extra help. Calling the helpline is not the answer because no one ever answers, which can only be deliberate.
The added yearly cost of TV licences will cause serious distress and anxiety among Scotland’s poorest, oldest and most vulnerable pensioners. Age Scotland’s research shows that almost six in 10 single pensioners and four in 10 older couples already find it hard to pay their heating bills, and that 38 per cent of older people feel “financially squeezed”. No one should have to choose between heating, eating and something that is as important to older people as television is. The average BBC viewer these days is 62 years old; 1.8 million over-75s live alone and many count on the TV for company. Many are widowed or housebound or live far from their families, so TV is one of their only connections to society.
The founder of the National Pensioners Convention, Jack Jones, once pointed out that one in five of the over-70s never sees anyone from one week to the next. Clearly, television is more than only entertainment for some of our most vulnerable older citizens.
Let us think about it in another way. Pensioners who cannot afford the licence fee might choose to go without. That could lead to even further isolation and loneliness, ultimately placing more strain on the NHS. Some argue that the rise of cheap online streaming services means that we have a greater choice of programming today than we ever did, but for the thousands of elderly people who may not be tech literate or confident with such subscription services they are not an option.
Last month, Age UK warned of a rise in fraud, with scammers posing as representatives from TV Licensing. Last month alone, more than 16,000 people who signed the “Switched Off: Save Free TV for Older People” petition were targeted by fraudsters who claimed that there was a problem with the recipient’s licence payment and that they should pay up right away. Imagine being an unlucky pensioner who is forced by the Tories to pay the extra fee and then getting a letter through the door asking for the fee to be paid again, or worse, the £1,000 fine that comes with not paying it. What a kick in the teeth that would be for Scottish pensioners who have worked hard all their lives and yet cannot seem to catch a break under the Tories.
Not only will this cruel plan affect pensioners; it will affect our society in a different way. With streaming services such as Netflix on the rise, traditional broadcasting channels have to compete by putting on more and more compelling programmes. The BBC is no different. The cost of having to subsidise free licences to eligible pensioners, combined with the loss of revenue from younger people who increasingly choose the £7.99 Netflix fee over the yearly licence, will be significant.
In evidence to the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee a fortnight ago, the BBC said that paying the licence fees of over-75s would cost BBC Scotland £38 million out of a £249 million budget, or almost 16 per cent of the total. That can only have an adverse impact on the broadcaster’s ability to produce the high-quality drama that we all expect and appreciate. The BBC is a creative employer that produces some of the finest programmes in the world, but if it has to pay for TV licences for the elderly the unprecedented cuts to programming budgets will make it increasingly difficult to hire as many creatives or to compete with other TV providers.
When will this relentless attack by the Tories on pensioners end? For too long, the Conservative Government has treated pensioners badly—the women against state pension inequality, or WASPI, women are a perfect example—and the scrapping of the free TV licence is yet another indication of that. The reality is that television is a lifeline for the elderly.
The Tories want to scrap the licences without taking any responsibility and it simply will not wash. In their fig-leaf-like speeches today, Tory members have referred to a deal in 2015, so one wonders why they said in their 2017 manifesto that they were going to continue to pay the licences. Where is the truth in that? I expect them to say something about that when they wind up. The pitiful defence by Tory MSPs of the indefensible is embarrassing, to be frank, and further evidence of their dog-like devotion to whatever nonsensical UK Government policies are imposed, no matter how reprehensible.
The timing of the debate is impeccable, given that an election campaign is in full flow and that, as other members have mentioned, it is 20 years since pensioners found out that they were set to benefit from a UK Labour Government. A Labour commitment at its universal best, the free TV licence went hand in hand with the winter fuel payment, followed a minimum income guarantee and was a core part of social security for pensioners.
As the social exclusion unit put it, the policy was one part of a package that was designed to close the terrible
“gap between the poorest and richest pensioners”, which
“had grown wider than at any time in the last 30 years.”
We know the impact of those measures. More than 100,000 pensioners in Scotland were removed from poverty. Instead of one in three of our older people being in poverty, after a Labour Government had been in power across the UK just over one in 10 remained in poverty. However, that trend is reversing as a result of successive Tory Governments—the figure is up by a quarter since the start of the decade.
Removing free TV licences will have a real impact on pensioners. They are on fixed incomes, and the money that would have been available before the cut will have to be found from somewhere. Every month, £13 will need to be taken out of budgets for food, for the few activities that they can afford to do to get out of the house, or even for the energy bills that power the TV.
Previous speakers have cited Age Scotland findings that, along with a pet, the TV is the main form of company for half our older pensioners. That is a devastating indictment of our society as a whole, but it demonstrates just how wrong-headed the Tories are for pursuing the cut.
In January, when members debated the Government’s strategy on tackling social isolation, we heard that local services for over-60s were falling away in the face of Government cuts. Free swimming, Christmas lunches, library services, tea dances and lifeline bus routes were all gone. Is it any surprise therefore that, in the first half of 2019, loneliness was a key theme in one third of calls to Silver Line Scotland? Free TV licences are not a burden on Government budgets. They are a lifeline to hundreds of thousands of older people across the country and, in part, they have been an insurance policy for a society and a Government that are increasingly failing older people.
Faced with a bill of £745 million, the BBC has looked to peg entitlement to pension credit. However, as Independent Age rightly points out, pension credit is not a good enough proxy for low incomes, because take-up is so poor. Because of Tory cuts, gone is the role of DWP staff in actively working on increasing pension credit uptake. Today, more than one third of pensioners—120,000 people—do not claim for reasons including lack of awareness, stigma or simply the complexity of the system, which is not helped by the lack of service. The change will not help the over-75s who are on pension credit, because they are simply not the poorest pensioners; the poorest pensioners are the 120,000 people who are not claiming pension credit. The changes to the rules for mixed-age couples add to the burden and to the confusion that is discouraging more than 100,000 people from applying for the much-needed entitlement.
That is why the Government’s proposal for fees and, I presume, entitlement to be set independently from Government—by experts—is interesting. Like Age Scotland, many members have rightly questioned whether the BBC should ever have been responsible for decisions about free TV licences, which, as I have said, are now a fundamental part of the social security system. Whether or not the BBC agrees to a forced deal, the Tories have repeatedly failed to answer whether they think that it is right for a social security entitlement to be administered by the BBC, not by central Government.
I wonder whether the same approach was considered as part of the recent consultation on disability assistance. When I asked, I was told that there would not be consultation on the rates of benefits and that the Government had decided that the rates would not change. It would be interesting to know whether the Government will consider establishing an independent expert body to set entitlements for the devolved benefits over which we now have control.
The Tory amendment does little more than attempt to justify the Tories’ decision to cut TV licences, which is a decision that they have forced on to the BBC. Even after the contortions of their 2017 campaign, the Tories will not put their hands in their pockets, which demonstrates yet again that the things that they do not value are fair game to cut. Worse still, they now use the licence fee as a device for pitching pensioners against an organisation that the country trusts and cherishes. Their leader says that he will “put the screws” on our public service broadcaster and tells it to “cough up”. Such bravado and confrontation are not what pensioners need. They need security, support and promises kept. They need their free TV licences to be retained—in full—and that is what a Labour Government will deliver.
The shameful decision to abdicate responsibility for free TV licences for over-75s is entirely symptomatic of the way in which the Tory-led UK Government has taken older people for granted. The backroom outsourcing of something that is part of welfare policy is simply unconscionable, but it is very deliberate.
In Aberdeenshire, it is estimated that 12,230 over-75s will be forced to pay an extra £154.50 in household bills because their free TV licences are due to be axed. After years of Tory austerity, the last thing that our older people need is more money being taken out of their pockets. The extra burden of that £154.50 in their household bills could have a serious impact on their welfare.
In addition, most of the population in my constituency live in rural towns and villages, where loneliness and social isolation can have a huge impact on older people. I welcome the work of the Scottish Government as it prepares to lead internationally, through the implementation of a national strategy to address social isolation and loneliness. I welcome the news that the strategy is being backed by £1 million of funding over the next two years to support and expand innovative approaches that bring people together.
However, pensioners are continually targeted by the UK Tory Government. This is just the latest raid on their meagre finances. We have heard that the UK pension is already one of the lowest in Europe. Mixed-age couples are losing their pensioner partner’s entitlement to pension credit and the WASPI women have been robbed of their pension entitlement. Now they are coming for their telly. What is next?
Access to television should not be understated or trivialised, especially as we enter the winter months, when many elderly people struggle to leave the house on cold days and dark nights. Access to television is not a luxury—it is a lifeline. Elderly people who cannot afford a TV licence will now be under greater pressure and feel more anxiety as they face the risk of breaking the law if they struggle to find the cash.
The UK Government may not be able to means test loneliness or social isolation, but there is a risk that the negative consequences of scrapping free TV licences—and putting the blame for that on the BBC, which Conservative members have bravely struggled to avoid this afternoon—will affect mental wellbeing and hamper the Scottish Government’s moves to tackle loneliness.
Access to TV is already an issue for the elderly in my area. People who go into hospital in my area have to pay exorbitant fees to access television—they are charged up to £56 a week for bedside telly services run by Hospedia in NHS Grampian. The elderly in my area face a double whammy—paying for TV in their homes and paying for TV when they are ill and vulnerable in hospital. I urge the UK Government to take responsibility and restore free TV licences to over-75s. That is the very least that our older people, who have worked hard and paid their taxes all their lives, deserve.
The newsflash is that real people out in the real world, who are not interested in political rhetoric, are struggling to make ends meet because of Conservative austerity measures. Blaming the BBC, as Rachael Hamilton and others have done, for stopping free TV licences for the over-75s is a smokescreen for the Conservative Party’s betrayal of the elderly and vulnerable. Providing free TV licences to over-75s should be the very minimum that the UK Government is doing to support our older people.
As the cabinet secretary said, the decision is also an attempt to further undermine public service broadcasting, which successive UK Tory Governments have been quite happy to see being dismantled, like so many other public institutions in the UK.
The decision has put additional pressure on a public service that is the envy of the world. People around the world are always going on about how well respected the BBC is, and now the UK Government is putting an additional pressure on its survival.
As Alison Johnstone said, the BBC is not set up to administer a social security service, and nor should it have to do so. Transferring what should be a welfare policy to the BBC is a shameful abdication of duty by the UK Government. The next Prime Minister must do the right thing, and restore that responsibility and restore the entitlement to a free licence to everyone aged over 75. Older people should be asking all candidates who are putting themselves forward for that job what they would do and vote accordingly on 12 December.
This has been an interesting debate, which has recognised the importance of the BBC and largely accepted the case for having the benefit of a free TV licence for the over-75s.
Some might argue that the older population has changed, but setting the policy for over-75s directs support to a more vulnerable group of adults. As has been recognised, that group spends more time at home and the TV provides a link to the outside world. It is informative and entertaining, it provides connection and topics of conversation and has a valuable social benefit, which many members highlighted.
Alison Johnstone described the impact on older people who are living on limited incomes and are vulnerable to loneliness and Mike Rumbles talked about the benefit of the universality of such a policy. Other members reflected on the challenges of using pension credit as the passport to the benefit, which would inevitably mean that a group of people who are entitled to the free licence, but who are not applying for universal credit, will not be able to receive it.
Annabelle Ewing and Mark Griffin both talked about the low uptake of pensioner credit. A number of other members talked about the change to pension credit for mixed-age couples, which means that it is based on the younger partner. It made me think about how the over-75s licence policy took the opposite approach—any household with a person who was over 75 would receive the benefit. It was a more generous benefit that recognised the importance of the person who was over 75 and gave them what they were entitled to, regardless of who else was in the household.
Kenneth Gibson raised the issue of loneliness. He highlighted that over-75s can often be widowed or bereaved and often live further away from their families and he mentioned the importance of the connection to society that the television gives them.
While we have all talked about the £750 million impact on the BBC, in Scotland, the impact would be £38 million out of a £249 million budget. As Kenneth Gibson highlighted, that is 16 per cent of BBC Scotland’s budget. At a time when the BBC is expanding and investing in Scotland, that would be a huge impact.
Mark Griffin talked about the increasing levels of pensioner poverty and isolation and linked that point to the recent debate on the social isolation strategy that we had in Parliament. He also made the point that the TV licence policy was not a burden on Government budgets—it was a lifeline for many and therefore it was a policy from which the Government actually got returns. It helped older people to stay positive and interested in life and it gave them support at home.
Gillian Martin was quite right to talk about not trivialising the importance of TV and about recognising the real negative consequences for older people if they have difficulty in finding the money to pay for their licence. They could face the choice of not paying for the licence and being criminalised, which is not something that people at that stage of life would expect to be affected by.
We should acknowledge that the BBC is envied around the world and is recognised as the gold standard of public broadcasting. Although there are many other channels calling for our attention, its viewing figures remain strong and it is a British institution that is part of our collective experience.
The Conservatives are in a difficult position this afternoon, as the UK Government has shifted its position on the issue so many times and it is hard to keep on message. It is unfortunate that the Conservative amendment again attempts to blame the BBC for the situation and calls the decision “regrettable”. However, I would say that the decision was inevitable after the ultimatum that the BBC was given by the UK Government. George Osborne used this popular social policy as a lever: the Government held all the cards. This afternoon, the Conservatives have argued that the BBC accepted the deal. However, today’s papers mention the recent conference at which Sir David Clementi, who is the chairman of the BBC, reflected on that time. He said:
“I think the deal needs to be seen in the context of the time, 2015. The Conservatives had just won the last election. For the first time they got to form a majority government rather than a coalition ... I don’t think Lord Hall was given any option.”
Let us be realistic about what happened in those negotiations. It is quite clear, given the position in which the BBC was placed, that it did not have any choice. Members have used the word “accountability” and have talked about the Government taking responsibility; they recognise the importance of those things.
Alison Johnstone was right to raise concerns. That the Government should make a negative decision and try to shift the blame on to someone else—misrepresenting the decision and trying to avoid responsibility—sets a worrying precedent.
It is clear that the policy of a free licence for over-75s was a social benefit that was introduced by a Government, and it is the Government’s responsibility to fund it. The policy was not introduced by the BBC and any change to it should have been the Government’s responsibility.
George Osborne knew exactly what he was doing by passing the decision to the BBC with no funding to deliver it. The consequences of continuing with the policy, with no additional budget, would have been damaging to the BBC’s offer.
We are now seeing welcome investment to address the issues of regional representation, greater diversity and support for the creative sector. That agenda could not be taken forward if the BBC had to meet the full cost of the Government’s policy.
As Kenneth Gibson said, after announcing that the benefit would end, the Conservatives promised in their 2017 manifesto that the free licence would be protected—a promise that was then broken. At the time, they even tried to frame it as a mistake—a copy-and-paste error in the manifesto. We have seen similar reports that Boris Johnson will save the free licence and include it in the manifesto for the upcoming election. However, as Mark Griffin said, the Prime Minister also said that he was going to
“put the screws on the BBC” and tell it to “cough up”.
Rachael Hamilton insisted that the BBC should fund the licence fee. If that is the solution, it is not a very good one, and it is not one that will deliver for either the viewer or for the BBC. The Conservatives have shown no shame in deciding to make a cut as significant as this in a welfare policy but take no responsibility for it. It is frankly appalling. Let us look at some of the comments from Tory MPs, such as Esther McVey. I do not know why I am quoting her, but she ran for the leadership in June—we had to go through that then and we are now facing another election—and said at that time that she was
“ashamed of the BBC’s decision”, which is an appalling thing for a member of the very Government that put the BBC in that position to say.
We then had a host of Conservative politicians saying how ashamed they were of the BBC—it was terrible. Those who believe in restoring the free licence for over-75s should take responsibility and join us this afternoon in demanding that the UK Government restore the funding for it.
I agree with the many members who have said that this is an important debate. Although different people will vote different ways, there has been quite a lot of consensus among all parties in the debate. Everyone in the chamber agrees on how important television, the TV licence and the BBC are to older people. I know that from personal experience, having two parents who are over the age of 75; indeed, they are both over the age of 80. They may even be watching this debate on the BBC Parliament channel. We can all agree that TV is vital for older people.
We can also all agree that, particularly for older people who struggle to get out of their house for different reasons, television is a connection with what is going on in the world and a form of entertainment, and it can be seen as a friend and as someone who can give them company when they do not have it from other people. That raises in our minds lots of other questions about loneliness, which many speakers picked up on.
There is also agreement that we need to protect the poorest in society, particularly the poorest pensioners. That is why those who are on pension credit will get an exemption. We had some degree of conflation in the debate from Mark Griffin and others with regard to why there is such a low take-up of pension credit. That is an important issue to consider, and Mark Griffin will be aware that the Social Security Committee is considering it at the moment. Halfway through our inquiry, there are no simple answers as to why people do not take up either the benefits that are devolved to Scotland or those that remain at Westminster.
I completely agree with Mr Balfour that there are no simple answers as to how we increase uptake. Why do the Conservatives feel that it is appropriate to let the BBC take decisions on social security entitlements—on who qualifies for free TV licences and who does not? Surely that is a job for an expert, qualified agency within central Government that has experience of administering social security benefits. It is not something that should be left with the BBC.
That is an interesting point, which I will come back to it in closing in a few moments. We need to look at why people are not taking up benefits, but I am not sure that that is a debate for today.
Where there is disagreement between my party and the rest of the chamber is in regard to what happened in July 2015. With respect, I think that the cabinet secretary and others are trying to rewrite history slightly. Lord Hall, whom I have met once or twice, is no mean negotiator. He is not some kind of pussycat that simply rolls over and does whatever people want him to do. Lord Hall went in to renegotiate the charter and, rightly, to get the best deal possible for the corporation. There was no criticism of this by Lord Hall or others back in 2015. In fact, there are still those in the BBC who say that it is the best deal that they could get.
May I just develop this point to an end? For us as politicians to second-guess why the BBC made that decision and what pressure it was put under is to miss the bigger picture that it was a decision that the BBC made. Claire Baker says that it came with no financial help but, again, that is simply not true. Part of the negotiation was to make people who watch the iPlayer have a TV licence. That gives extra income to the BBC and there were other things to give the BBC more funding.
During that period I had numerous meetings with the BBC, including with Tony Hall, because of Scotland’s interests in broadcasting, and I am quite aware that this was a one-sided deal. Discussions on such issues as the iPlayer and the licence fee increases should have been happening anyway. Most of the chamber thinks that the UK Government should shoulder responsibility for welfare policy. If the Scottish Conservatives think that the BBC should fund this policy, what services do they think the BBC should cut to fund it? How many orchestras would the Scottish Conservatives close? Would they close BBC2? Would they get rid of CBeebies? That is the choice that the Conservatives are placing in front of the BBC just now. What would the Scottish Conservatives cut to fund this policy which should be funded by the UK Government?
You are too kind, Presiding Officer.
I think that that is the key issue. Unlike the Scottish Government, the Scottish Conservatives believe that the BBC should be independent and not be told what to do by any political party. Therefore, that decision is not for us to make; it is for the BBC. [
Again, I think that we are undermining Lord Hall and the BBC with regard to the open negotiations that took place and were signed up to and agreed.
It is not for me to tell the BBC what to do and how to function—that is its decision to make. Personally, I think that we should look at some of its salaries, its pay structure and some of the programmes that it produces, but those are the BBC’s decisions, and not ones for us as politicians.
There may well be some consensus on my final point. However we decide to vote tonight, and whatever decisions are made, I think that, after the general election, when the Conservative Government is returned, it is important that the UK Government and the BBC get around the table to have proper discussions on how we take this issue forward. Ultimately, it is a BBC decision—the BBC is accountable for it and has to fund it—but we need to protect the most vulnerable pensioners in our society and make sure that they get the free TV licences that they deserve.
Members look a bit puzzled about the time, but we hope to bring decision time forward to 4.45, although the motion to do that has not been moved yet. That is why I am calling the cabinet secretary—you are, unusually, looking a bit bewildered—to make her closing speech now, for nine minutes or thereabouts, please.
Thank you, Presiding Officer.
I thank members from across the chamber for their contributions to this important debate. I think that there is shared anger about the UK Government’s decision to transfer the costs of the over-75s licence fee concession to the BBC without any funding, knowing full well that the BBC would be faced with cutting channels, programmes, services and jobs in order to keep the licence free for over-75s. The responsibility for that lies fairly and squarely with the Conservative Government.
Maurice Corry talked about the negotiations, but they were one-sided negotiations. Claire Baker is correct that the BBC had no choice but to accept that deal. That is why the Scottish Government believes that the licence fee should be raised for the purposes of public service broadcasting alone and that the fee should be set by a body that is independent of Government. We also believe that we should keep the concession scheme under review.
I think that the Conservatives said that the negotiations between the Government and BBC were open, but that was not the case. The negotiations took place behind closed doors and were not transparent. There was cross-party agreement on that in reports from the House of Lords and the House of Commons. It is incredible that the Scottish Conservatives are the last bastion standing in defence of what is clearly a mistaken UK Government policy.
We have heard how the decision on the over-75s licence fee will impact detrimentally on older people’s choices and lifestyles. We are deeply concerned about the impact on older people in our society with regard to social isolation and loneliness. Indeed, through the Scottish Government, Scotland is one of the first countries in the world to set forward a strategy to tackle social isolation and loneliness, which is being taken forward by my colleague Christina McKelvie, who is the Minister for Older People and Equalities.
The BBC is fundamentally a public service broadcaster—it exists to serve the public—and the decision on the licence fee is likely to deny older people the ability to access the services that the BBC provides, whether that is news or entertainment. Licence fee funds should be devoted to delivering the BBC’s public purposes, including showing and having the highest-quality and most creative and distinctive output and services. The decision on the licence fee will divert money that should be spent on developing new TV programmes and, importantly, on supporting our creative economy.
The BBC has warned about potential closures of services if it was to fund free TV licences for all over-75s and has said that bearing the cost would have a direct impact on viewers and listeners in Scotland. In her introductory speech, Claire Baker listed the equivalent value of the channels and programmes that would have to be cut were the BBC to follow through on the licence fee decision. That is why there is a very strong argument for us to collectively say that the next UK Government, of whatever shape or form, should take back control—dare I say—of responsibility for that licence fee welfare policy.
Many jobs in the Scottish media and creative sectors depend to a degree on BBC activity, so any across-the-board cut in service budgets would be detrimental to the sectors. We have heard from over-75s’ representative networks about their concerns about the licence fee. We have also heard in members’ speeches of Age UK’s criticism of the plans and of its concerns about how we support older people.
A number of members, including Neil Bibby, made that point. The BBC plans that a specific group of people will pay support visits to the over-75s with the intention of helping them to understand the system. That would mean the over-75s licence police knocking on the door of your grandparents without the skills, empathy and understanding of those who have worked for many years in that sector to help and encourage people on benefits. That is very worrying. As the House of Commons committee report put it, there remains an overall lack of clarity for the public on how collection of the fee will be implemented.
“it will make hundreds of thousands of our poorest pensioners choose between continuing to watch TV, by cutting back on other essentials, or giving it up altogether.”
That is hard to swallow when Age Scotland also tells us, as Alison Johnstone pointed out, that for nearly half of all over-75s, a TV or radio is their main companion. The manifesto also rightly points out that, without a licence, those people would be breaking the law. Do we really expect licence fee vans to patrol the streets seeking out the over-75s? That is utterly unacceptable.
It is evident from the points that members have made that there is consensus about where responsibility lies. I talked earlier about the negotiations, and I was struck by Mike Rumbles describing the deal as the Don Corleone offer—an offer you can’t refuse. An independent commission is needed so that there is transparency in setting the licence fee in the future. Annabelle Ewing described it as a shady deal and reflected that the cross-party House of Commons report described it as “hasty and secretive”. Indeed, it was a cynical ploy.
I think that Gillian Martin understands what the BBC tried to do in 2015. It was in the context of the new Conservative Government coming in, many of whose members were concerned about or did not support public service broadcasting. The move has really been about undermining public service broadcasting.
Kenneth Gibson’s speech was particularly powerful. He reminded us that the 2017 Conservative manifesto said that the Conservatives would maintain pensioners’ free TV licences. Until Claire Baker pointed it out, I had not heard that that was a problem of cutting and pasting in the production of the manifesto. Let that be a warning to all who are putting their manifestos together, including Richard Leonard, who has just joined us in the chamber.
Kenneth Gibson made an important point about means testing, which goes to the heart of why the policy of over-75s having free TV licences is so important in tackling social isolation. He asked how the Tories could means test for loneliness and social exclusion. That is why the debate is so important. It is about respect and dignity for our older population, who have benefited for 20 years from what became an accepted form of social welfare policy. It is only in recent years that the UK Government has shirked that responsibility.
We want to ensure that the responsibility is laid fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the UK Government and that it understands that responsibility. If the UK Government is not prepared to undo the mistake, the next round of negotiations on the TV licence fee must be carried out in a different way, which is why the establishment of a new body in time for that is absolutely right.
We have repeatedly made our views known to the BBC and, as I said, I was extensively involved in discussions on the issue. It was known to be on the horizon. The position of the BBC in this regard was completely untenable; it had to accept the deal or not receive the other aspects, which members have talked about. It was a one-sided negotiation.
During the BBC consultation process, we expressed our view that an independent body be established, particularly in regard to the licence fee concession.
As members will know, the Scottish Government believes that broadcasting should be devolved to ensure that proportionate decisions are made that consider the needs of Scotland.
Members have made powerful contributions and set out the evidence. It is clear that there is a division in the chamber, which is about whether members see free TV licences for the over-75s as a welfare policy or, as the Scottish Conservatives advocate, something for which the BBC should take responsibility by cutting channels and services.
The choice is clear, and it is time that we made our position clear. We need to stand up for our over-75s and for public service broadcasting, and argue that the UK Government should stand up to its responsibility to fund TV licences for the over-75s.