Emma Little-Pengelly is the Democratic Unionist MP for Belfast South.
I am proud to be a member of a party, the DUP, which has always stood shoulder to shoulder with our older population.
Our strong track record is reflected in our commitments at the last general election to support the continuation both of the ‘triple lock’ on pensions, and of universal benefits such as the Winter Fuel Allowance – when some others were calling them into question.
These benefits continue across the UK only through our intervention, and are enshrined in the confidence and supply agreement we have with the Conservative Party.
Today the future of another such benefit, concessionary TV licences for the over 75s, is in doubt. This is because during the BBC Charter Renewal negotiations in 2015 the BBC took on full responsibility for these concessionary licences from 2020. Government funding towards the estimated £745 million annual cost has been tapering away, and ends completely next year.
My party supports freezing and then cutting or ending the licence fee altogether, because it’s a highly regressive ‘tax’ that belongs to a world of communications that increasingly no longer exists. It is surely a matter of when, not if, the licence fee goes in favour of a different approach.
But the fact that the BBC licence fee is outmoded is no reason to take away free licences from the oldest now – before the discussion about what replaces it has even got properly underway. Indeed, removing the concession would punish many of the BBC’s most loyal viewers and listeners, particularly the poorest and oldest, many of whom would find it hard or impossible to pay.
For the over-75s, their television is often a great source of comfort and companionship, especially if widowed and living alone, disabled or unwell, as many are by this stage in life. I certainly see this among my own older constituents in South Belfast, most of all those on a low fixed income and budgeting carefully to pay their bills – which they tell me always seem to be going up.
They are usually not on the internet, let alone Netflix subscribers. Their media habits continue to centre on television – usually terrestrial – and AM and FM radio. Many of them have few other pleasures in life and I think politicians should think very carefully before taking any action that could make life worse for them, which abolishing their free TV licence certainly would.
In a fast-changing and uncertain world, my Party believes older people need our support more than ever, and that’s why we support the continuation of free TV licences for all over-75s.
Some people have however argued that we should use this as an opportunity to means-test the licence fee. In theory, this sounds like an ideal solution, but in reality it would be expensive to administer, would provide no help for those living just above the line, and many of the poorest would miss out – just as they do on pension credit – because of the complexities and stigma associated with claiming means-testing benefits.
It is also a sad reality that, despite interventions and protections put in place, the numbers of pensioners living in poverty have begun to rise again. We also know that many older people are cash-poor, with their assets tied up such as in their house and home.
For the DUP, there are three consequences to the backroom arrangement made in 2015 between the Government and the BBC, that are all equally unacceptable:
1) Whether they keep it, scrap it, or amend the current funding formula, the BBC would be deciding and implementing social policy. This is not the BBC’s job, and what confidence would any of us have that they would perform it well? The BBC has no experience of this, nor are there the right levels of scrutiny or accountability for their decisions or reasoning.
2) I have considerable sympathy for those who are raising concern that older people are inappropriately stuck in the middle of a debate between the Corporation and policymakers about the BBC’s long-term funding future. This conversation definitely needs to happen, but surely we should keep vulnerable older people out of it.
3) This process puts other universal benefits for older people under threat because, like it or not, it sets a precedent. If this or any other government wishes to make changes to pensioner entitlements they are well within their rights to do so, but it should be done openly. It must be debated and scrutinised in the appropriate way, with clear democratic accountability.
They should also know that we in the DUP will continue to stand up for older people if this happens. But at least the process will be transparent. I believe we owe this to older people.
For all these reasons we believe action must be taken now to prevent the removal of this concession and we strongly urge the Government to step in and ensure this happens. It would mean so much to the older people in my constituency who have raised their worries and sadness with me, as I am sure it would also to hundreds of thousands of others across the UK.