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An abdication of responsibility

George Foulkes on the ongoing fight to keep free TV Licences for over 75s

Back in the 1970s, before I became an MP, I worked as Director of Age Concern Scotland for six years. So unsurprisingly, when I was first elected to the Commons in 1979, I became Secretary and then Co-Chair of the All-Party Group for Pensioners (as it was called then). Along with free travel and index linking for state pensions, the provision of free TV licences for older people was one of our three key demands from ministers.

Throughout 18 long years of Conservative rule naturally nothing was done, with the government opposing the measure and a Private Members Bill introduced by Labour MP David Winnick that sought to provide free TV licences for older people. Although some support from Tory backbenchers did begin to emerge from those who represented seats with older demographics, notably from the MP for Brighton Kemptown Andrew Bowden – who jointly chaired the APPG with me – and in other places such as Bournemouth.

In the end it wasn’t achieved until 2000, when a Labour government with a sympathetic and compassionate Chancellor – Gordon Brown – introduced free TV licences for the over-75s, finding the money from the then Department of Social Security budget because it was deemed a key social benefit.

Successive Conservative manifestoes have promised not to remove the free license and so provide older people with the security they deserve. But in recent years, they have failed to fully stand by the commitment, leaving the decision to the BBC.

Both the government and the BBC must understand the stress many over-75s are facing on this matter, with the cut off delayed from June to 1st August. But they should now follow up by abandoning the decision altogether and restoring the current position where the government fund the license as a social need rather than expecting the broadcaster to cover the cost.

In the year marking 20 years since the concession was introduced, we now find ourselves fighting for the survival of this vital benefit. One that has been even more important during the Covid lockdown, when TV has served as a key lifeline for many older and vulnerable people confined to their homes.

As we did when I was first elected to Parliament, Labour is once again dealing with another large Conservative majority that seeks to strip over-75s of their dignity. The only difference today is that the government, in a startling abdication of responsibility, is seeking to pass the buck. This decision should never have been left to the BBC. It is unquestionably a duty of care issue, as the current pandemic has clearly proved, and therefore the government should fund it as a social need.

Forty years on since I first joined the campaign, I am proud to be fighting alongside others to ensure we maintain this key benefit, both beyond 1st August and then indefinitely. Ministers should do the right thing and give lonely elderly people the peace of mind and connection to the outside world that they deserve.

Lord George Foulkes of Cumnock is a Labour Peer. He tweets @GeorgeFoulkes

Published 3rd July 2020

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