Monday, 31 December 2018

A licence to break a promise?

Free TV licences for over 75s were introduced in 2000, when Gordon Brown was Chancellor.
The rationale was that the TV plays an important tool in the battle against loneliness and social isolation. Four in 10 older people say the television is their main source of company. Many are unable to enjoy other social activities. Christmas is a particularly bad time for loneliness; analysis by Age UK found that almost a million pensioners wouldn’t have seen or heard from anyone over the festive period.
The cost of the free licences is expected to reach £745m by 2021/22 and will continue to rise because of the increasing numbers of older people. This is equivalent to about a fifth of the BBC’s budget - the equivalent to what is spent today on all of BBC Two, BBC Three, BBC Four, the BBC News Channel, CBBC and CBeebies. 
As part of the negotiations in 2014/15 over the TV Licence Fee, the BBC Governors foolishly agreed that the BBC would take responsibility for the cost of pensioners’ free licences, despite not having the resources to fund them in the longer-term. Basically, the Conservative government had threatened a lower Licence Fee – and therefore less money for the BBC – if they didn’t agree. This meant that, starting from this year, the BBC has taken responsibility for funding free TV licence fees of those over 75 and it also has the power to scrap or reduce the number or scope of free licences.
Along with my Labour colleagues, I opposed this move at the time, and throughout the passage of the legislation - Digital Economy Act – through Parliament. When Conservative Ministers were challenged about this, they denied that Free TV Licences for over 75s were under threat.
Under further challenge during the 2017 general election campaign, the 2017 Conservative Manifesto promised to “maintain all other pensioner benefits, including free bus passes, eye tests, prescriptions and TV licences, for the duration of this Parliament”, that is until 2022.
But now, the BBC has started a consultation on whether to scrap free licences completely, or to raise the age threshold or to means test access to a free licence from 2020. Under each of the changes proposed by the BBC in their consultation, millions of pensioners will lose their free licences.
Nationally, if the free licence is linked to pension credit, i.e. means tested, over 3 million people would lose their free licence. If the eligibility age was raised to 80 over 1.8 million older people would lose their free licences.
In my constituency, about 6500 pensioners – nearly 4000 of them over 80 years old – currently get a Free TV Licence. About 67% of them – more than 4300 – would lose eligibility if it were dependent on pension credit. Nearly 40% - more than 2500 – would lose out if eligibility was raised to 80.
In South Yorkshire, about 100,000 pensioners – some 75000 of them over 80 years old – currently get a Free TV Licence. About 78,000 would lose out if eligibility was dependent on pension credit. And more than 40,000 households would lose out if eligibility was raised to 80.
The prospect of elderly people losing their free TV Licence makes a mockery of Mrs May’s claim that austerity is over. If she has any integrity, she would step in now and keep to the promise she made.

Conservative ideology is costing us all

The Conservatives’ ideological commitment to “public sector bad; private sector good” is costing us all. It is what drives their privatisation and outsourcing instincts.
When it is combined with ‘light touch’ regulation and contract management – with inadequate resources being committed to tender assessment and contract monitoring – we end up with poor value-for-money, service specifications not being delivered, incompetent directors being paid millions before they walk away from the disasters they have left behind, and shareholders extracting millions in dividends whilst the public picks up the cost of their failure to pay appropriate pension contributions.
There is still a long, long way to go to get to the bottom of the Carillion collapse. Amongst others, the Insolvency Service and the Official Receiver are still investigating. The £5.2bn-turnover company collapsed owing banks about £1.3bn. It had just £29m of cash and a £600m pension deficit. About 3,000 people were made redundant, although 14,000 jobs were saved after contracts were shifted to other providers.
When stories circulated that Carillion’s sub-contractors on government tendered projects were not being paid on time, more questions arose. It was then revealed that Carillion was not including 30 day payment clauses in its public sector contracts with subcontractors, which is required by the Public Contract Regulations. If the Government did not detect this behaviour by one of its biggest strategic suppliers, what confidence can any of us have in its overall approach to public procurement?
Over the last year, the share value of another big government contractor, Interserve, has fallen by 90%. It’s in financial crisis, desperately trying to restructure its £650m debts. It has more than £1bn of live public sector contracts with police forces, universities, hospitals, transport executives, local authorities and central government departments.
The Government recently said that they "do not believe that any strategic supplier is in a similar situation to Carillion…” and, throughout the last few months, has continued to award new contracts worth millions, despite the company’s solvency being in serious question.
What cannot be questioned is that its Purple Futures subsidiary has simply failed to perform in its delivery of probation services in five privatised Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs), where it is meant to be managing a total of around 40,000 “low and medium” risk offenders for our public protection.
You might think that awarding new public sector contracts to a company in financial crisis and with a track record in failing to deliver what is specified is unacceptable. I agree.
So, what do you think of the latest revelation about this government’s procurement?
As the government thrashes around desperately trying to arrange emergency measures in case we crash out of the EU without a deal, it has arranged a £13.8m contract to run additional ferries across the Channel between Ramsgate and Ostend with a new company called Seaborne Freight, despite it never having run a ferry service nor managed shipping arrangements before.
Is it any surprise that local Conservative Councillor Paul Messenger asked “It has no ships and no trading history, so how can due diligence be done? Why choose a company that never moved a single truck in its entire history…?”
Good questions!