Lord Foulkes: The Government must fund TV licences for over-75s

Posted On: 
20th June 2019

The BBC is not the DWP. If Governments want to end or curtail a benefit they should have the guts to do so and take the political flak, writes Lord Foulkes

Protestors at BBC Media City in Salford, Greater Manchester
Credit: 
PA Images

The free television licence for those 75 and over was one of a number of key universal benefits introduced by the Labour Government that have gone a long way to improving the lives of older people up and down the country.

On Monday of last week, the BBC announced that it was ending the universal nature of this benefit and from next year only those receiving Pension Credit will be eligible to receive the free licence. Rightly, this decision has been met with dismay from many corners of society.

This was the BBC’s decision to make following the disgraceful Charter Renewal agreement in 2015 which transferred responsibility for the licence fee concession from the Government to the Corporation via the Digital Economy Act 2017.

Today I will begin the process of reversing this decision and passing the responsibility back to the Government through a Private Members Bill in the House of Lords. If enacted, this piece of legislation will repeal Section 89 of the Digital Economy Act which passed the obligation to the BBC.

This can be a very significant first step in a Parliamentary campaign to ensure that we maintain this benefit for the estimated three million older people who are set to lose it. That campaign is already well underway in the country.

Why is this so important? For those living alone, the television is often their main companion, their window to the outside world. Research by Age UK found that over a million people say that TV is their main source of company.

The people who will be hurt most by this decision will be the ones who are just short of receiving Pension Credit, who are by no means wealthy. Moreover, a significant number of those who are eligible for the Pension Credit do not at present claim it, for a wide range of intractable reasons.

The Conservative party pledged to protect universal benefits, including the TV licence for the lifetime of this Parliament in their 2017 election manifesto – page 66 to be exact. That is a political commitment that cannot be sub-contracted to the BBC. It must be honoured.

That manifesto commitment begs the question: since the legislation passing responsibility to the BBC was passed prior to the 2017 election, how did the Government expect to implement that promise for the lifetime of this Parliament?

I asked the same question to the Minister in the Lords on several occasions last week. He provided unsatisfactory answers that simply evaded the basic fact that a manifesto commitment is in the process of being shamelessly broken, with the BBC used as fall guys.

Number 10 had the cheek to issue a statement stating that they expected the BBC to continue the concession and pointed towards the large salaries of senior BBC staff. These are two completely separate issues. Whatever one thinks about BBC salaries, they are a drop in the ocean compared to the 745 million – a fifth of the BBC’s budget – that this would cost the BBC by 2021-22.

Aside from being cruel and unnecessary, the removal of this concession gives rise to a number of practical issues. How will the BBC receive information on who is claiming Pension Credit? Will it comply with GDPR regulation? Who will be responsible for enforcement and how?

My Bill is straightforward and goes to the heart of the matter. The BBC is not the DWP. If Governments want to end or curtail a benefit they should have the guts to do so and take the political flak. By transferring responsibility back to where it belongs, there will be no more hiding behind the BBC.

Lord Foulkes is a Labour peer. The first reading of his PMB will take place today