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BBC — [Phil Wilson in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 6:42 pm on 15th July 2019.

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Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Inclusive Society) 6:42 pm, 15th July 2019

As always, Dame Cheryl, it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair. I thank and congratulate all 15 Members who have made speeches in this important debate. In the confessional spirit that has been prevalent this afternoon, I put it on the record that I, too, am a former employee of the BBC—I was there for about a decade. However, I have already spoken extensively about my time at the BBC, so in the time available I will concentrate on the issue that has dominated our debate: the decision to means-test the licence fee for those aged 75 and above.

In the SNP’s opinion, it is absolutely outrageous that the UK Government have sought to shift a welfare policy decision to the BBC, thereby not only shirking their responsibility to support our older citizens, but shamefully breaking their manifesto commitment on TV licences for the over-75s, as we have heard so many times this afternoon. Their 2017 manifesto made an explicit promise—on page 66, to be exact—that they would

“maintain…pensioner benefits, including free bus passes, eye tests, prescriptions and TV licences, for the duration of this parliament.”

I am glad that so many Conservative Members recognise that, particularly Huw Merriman.

I urge the Minister to explain why the Government are breaking their promise, and to commit to ensuring that our elderly population will not suffer because of such a damaging and ill-thought-out proposal. SNP Members add our voices to the ever-growing numbers, in all parts of the House and the length and breadth of these islands, who are calling for the UK Government to reverse their decision and stop abdicating responsibility by putting it on the BBC, particularly at this time of rising pensioner poverty. I wholeheartedly agree with Mr Vaizey and Christian Matheson that the Government were completely wrong to impose such a deal on the BBC in the first place—but then to criticise the BBC for doing what it was instructed to do simply beggars belief.

At a time when more and more of our older people are struggling to make ends meet, in many cases as a direct result of Tory austerity cuts, it would be a grave injustice to remove the free TV licence and expect older people to conjure up another £150 from somewhere. Scotland’s First Minister recently signed a letter to the Prime Minister urging the UK Government to guarantee that free TV licences for the over-75s would be protected. That letter was signed by every leader of Scotland’s major political parties, with the exception of Ruth Davidson of the Scottish Conservatives. Scotland’s First Minister and the other party leaders signed the letter because they know that the UK Government already provide one of the lowest state pensions in the developed world. Our older people need more financial support, not less, particularly at a time of rising costs.

Following its consultation process, the BBC announced that from June 2020 only those people who are aged 75 or above and in receipt of pension credit will continue to receive free TV licences. However, I argue strongly that means-testing on the basis of pension credit has been shown to be fundamentally flawed. I take issue with the assertion of the corporation’s director-general, Tony Hall, and its chairman, Sir David Clementi, that using pension credit means that the pensioners in most need will be protected. That is simply not the case.

It is currently estimated that four in 10 pensioner households eligible for pension credit do not receive it, for one reason or another. Just last month, the charity Independent Age found that more than 1 million pensioner households across the UK are living in poverty because the Government failed to act on unpaid pension credit, and that since 2017 the Government have benefited from £7 billion in unclaimed pension credit. As a result, there will be hundreds of thousands of poor pensioners who should qualify but do not, and who will now have to find an extra £150 to pay for a TV licence.

What about those pensioners who just miss out on qualifying for pension credit? They are hardly living the life of Riley, and by no stretch of the imagination could they be considered wealthy, yet they will be hurt most by the decision. Perhaps Lord Hall and Sir David Clementi would care to reflect on the fairness and protection that they argue is being afforded to this group of people. After years of Tory austerity, and the deep financial uncertainty caused by Brexit, the last thing that our older people need is the extra burden of finding the money for a TV licence.

I commend the words of the hon. Members for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan), for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), and for Lincoln (Karen Lee). The testimonies of their constituents could have come from any one of the 650 constituencies across these islands, because that is the reality. They display the depth of feeling among our constituents.

It is estimated that in Scotland this Tory TV licence fee will cost £40 million, with a quarter of a million over-75s set to lose out. Age Scotland also estimates that around 76,000 pensioners in Scotland do not receive pension credit, even though they are eligible for it. We in the SNP wholeheartedly agree with the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union, which has said that the over-75s’ licence is a welfare benefit and that it is the Government’s responsibility to pay it, and nobody else’s. Like BECTU and others, SNP Members will continue to call out this Government and the shameful subcontracting of their welfare responsibility to the BBC.

Stripping pensioners of their free TV licences is unacceptable. It will add pressure to already stretched pensioner budgets, and it will cause worry and angst among our poorest and most vulnerable people, who will be forced to make difficult choices about what they can and cannot afford. The responsibility for the TV licence lies with the UK Government. As we have heard so many times today, welfare policy should not be decided by the BBC and we strongly urge the Government to recognise that it is their responsibility to our older population to fully fund these licences.

I will finish by going right back to the beginning of the debate and the speech by Helen Jones. The words she used really resonate and the Government should reflect on them: she said that what the Government are doing to the over-75s really is the most mean-spirited of Government cuts.