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BBC — [Phil Wilson in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 15th July 2019.

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Photo of Helen Jones Helen Jones Chair, Petitions Committee 4:30 pm, 15th July 2019

Not yet. I need to make some progress, as many hon. Members are waiting to speak.

The TV is another voice in a house that was once full of people and very active but is now silent. To remove free TV licences from such people is the most mean-spirited of Government cuts. It will make lonely people lonelier—15% of our older people are lonely—and it will further isolate those who are already isolated.

It has been argued that restricting free TV licences to those in receipt of pension credit is somehow fairer because they are more deserving—the idea of the deserving and the undeserving is very 19th century—but there are several answers to that proposal. First, by the time someone is 75, they have paid their dues to society: they have worked, paid their taxes, and many have brought up children. Giving those people a free TV licence is a way to give something back as a small recognition of their past contribution.

Another argument is that we need a mix of targeted and universal benefits, but the latter—as the Government are discovering—are much harder to cut, because most of the time they are a guarantee of continuance. That argument is based on the myth that there are lots of wealthy pensioners. Recently, a lot of publicity was given to research claiming to show that older people were on average £20 a week better off than those in work, but much of the coverage did not mention that those were the figures after housing costs. If we look at the figures before housing costs, we see that people in work are better off.

Yes, many people in the older age groups own their own homes outright—the figure is about 40% of those born between 1945 and 1965—but that leaves a lot of people paying rent. Some 30% are still paying mortgages, while those who own their homes outright have forgone other spending to pay for them. What do we have now—a Tory Government punishing thrift?

Those who attended the public consultation pointed out very forcibly that in many areas older people have more expenses than younger people. Their heating bills are bigger because they are often at home all day and feel the cold more. Many pay for social care; one lady, whose husband is in a nursing home, is seeing her savings disappear before her eyes because of that expense.

Those figures are for those on median incomes, which means that half of all pensioners are below that level. Age UK states that three in 10 over-75s are in poverty or just above the poverty line—that means 1.9 million people—and 20% cannot afford to go out and socialise even once a month, while 37% cannot afford a holiday away from home.

One reason not to tie TV licences to pension credit is that pension credit uptake has been stuck at 63% for years. As my hon. Friend Alex Sobel said, that means that a lot of money goes unclaimed, including more than £4 million in my constituency and £3.5 billion nationally. The Government could have done something about that—an uptake campaign, for instance, or a simplification of the application process—but they have not done so because the lack of uptake means that they save not only on pension credit, but on the benefits that come with it.

Another reason not to tie free TV licences to pension credit is that those who will be hit hardest are just above the level for claiming pension credit and will lose far more of their income than wealthier people. Age UK estimates that 40% of over-75s would either not be able to afford a TV licence or could afford it only by cutting back on food or heating, for example. Those to whom we spoke made it clear that their generation were brought up to pay their bills and that they will pay them even if they have to cut back on something else. Letters from the licensing authority are already dropping through people’s letterboxes a year in advance, telling them that they will have to pay and causing real worry to many people. I wonder how long it will be until the scammers appear, ringing people and sending emails to say, “We are just checking your television licence. Give us your bank details.” That will happen—in fact, I am told that it is already happening in some areas.

Do we really want to live in the kind of country where pensioners go without food to pay for a TV licence, or go to jail for not having one? We recently celebrated our D-day veterans and quite rightly reflected on the debt that the country owes that generation. We cannot repay that debt by taking away free television licences. What will happen to those in care? At the moment, people in care homes get a discounted licence, but the regulations refer specifically to those under-75 because the over-75s were already deemed to receive free licences.

The BBC probably did not know that, which brings me to the important question of who should decide social policy. I cannot think of any way to frame that question such that the BBC is the answer. The BBC is not equipped to do it, does not have enough information to do it, and should not have to do it. It is a matter for Government and for Parliament.