Charities have warned that thousands of Scotland’s poorest households could be forced to give up their TVs following the BBC’s decision to means test licences for the over-75s.
More than 300,000 Scots will be hit by the decision to make the concession available only to households receiving pension credit - leaving many pensioners without a service which they say is their main form of company.
Age Scotland said that around 76,000 pensioners aged 75 and over in Scotland do not receive Pension Credit even though they are eligible, while older people who just miss out on the benefit will also struggle to pay the bill and could be pushed below the poverty line.
Only around 1.5 million households UK-wide will be eligible under the new scheme, which comes four years after the government revealed plans to withdraw funding for the £154.50 licence, which was previously free to over-75s.
Rob Gowans, spokesman for Citizens Advice Scotland, said: “We have concerns that linking the provision of free TV licences to people who are claiming Pension Credit will hit some of the most vulnerable households hardest.
“We already know that there are problems with eligibility and uptake of Pension Credit, in that many people who are entitled to it don’t claim it. If this change goes ahead those people will miss out on both pension credit and free TV licences.”
The move follows a consultation with 190,000 people, of which 52 per cent were in favour of reforming or abolishing free licences. The benefit was introduced by then-Labour Chancellor Gordon Brown in 2001. However, four years ago, the UK Government announced it would no longer subsidise the cost of the licence fee and the BBC would have to find the funding itself.
Brian Sloan, chief executive of Age Scotland, said: “This is a kick in the teeth to the thousands of older people who are already struggling to stay on top of rising living costs. If this goes ahead then we will see lonely and vulnerable people in their 80s and 90s, who depend on their TV for company, forced to give it up.
“Forty per cent of Scottish older people who are eligible for Pension Credit do not claim it, and will now face yet another annual bill that they can’t afford. We know that this is causing a huge amount of distress and anxiety among our poorest pensioners.”
He added: “More than half of over 75s say that their TV or a pet is their main form of company, helping them stay connected and improving their quality of life. This is particularly true for those who live alone or have mobility issues.
“The UK Government must not renege on its manifesto promise to older people and continue to fund this entitlement for all of our over-75s.”
As part of the charter agreement which came into affect in 2017, the BBC would take on the burden of paying for free licence fees by June 2020.
The new agreement will cost the BBC around £250 million by 2021/22 depending on the take-up of the means tested scheme. The broadcaster has said that if it bore the full financial burden of the free licences, the extra cost would have meant “unprecedented closures” - including shutting down the BBC Scotland channel, as well as BBC Two, BBC Four, the BBC News Channel, Radio 5live, and a number of local radio stations, as well as other cuts and reductions.
The National Pensioners Convention (NPC) has condemned the BBC for attempting to frame the move as fair.
General secretary of the NPC, Jan Shortt, said: “There is no doubt that the BBC has done the Government’s dirty work for it.
“Pensioner poverty is now increasing, loneliness is reaching crisis levels among older people and the BBC has the bare-faced cheek to call this fair. It’s an absolute disgrace.”
BBC chairman Sir David Clementi said it had been a “very difficult decision”.
He said: “We think it’s fair to those over 75 but also to all our audiences for whom there was no appetite for the level of cuts that would have been necessary if the concession had been extended.
“There are people for whom this will be unwelcome news, who have not paid until now but will do so. We know we have a loyal audience over the age of 75 and we think many of them will understand the difficult position we are in.”
Claire Baker MSP, Scottish Labour culture Spokeswoman, said: “This announcement today from the BBC that hundreds of thousands of pensioners in Scotland, and over 3 million pensioners across the whole UK, are set to lose their entitlement to free licence fees is solely the fault of the Conservative party.
“Their manifesto commitment is in tatters and older people’s charities are rightly warning that many people over 75 will now be at increased risk of isolation and loneliness.”
SNP MP Hannah Bardell said: “This isn’t ‘a compromise’ from the BBC or the UK Tory Government. This is daylight robbery of pensioners across the UK. The UK government must U-turn on their broken manifesto promise and fully fund the TV license for our older people.”
Explainer: What do the TV licence fee changes mean for over-75s?
More than three million people aged over 75 will have to pay for their TV licence when a new scheme comes into effect next year.
Here are some questions answered.
- What are the changes?
From June 2020, around 3.7 million households which previously received a free licence will have to pay for one.
At the moment all over-75s receive a free TV licence but from next year, only those households with a member who receives pension credit will be eligible.
Those found to be ineligible for a free licence will have to pay £154.50 a year for a colour television and £52 a year for a black and white television.
- Who will this affect?
The changes will affect all over-75s who do not receive pension credit.
Even if they previously had a free TV licence, they will have to buy one from June 1 2020.
- Why is this happening?
The Government-funded scheme to provide all households with people over 75 with a free TV licence comes to an end in 2020.
The Government has legislated that it is the BBC’s responsibility to decide on any future scheme and to pay for it.
Following a public consultation, the BBC decided that means-testing pensioners and giving free licences only to those on pension credit is the fairest way.
The BBC said if it had to fund licences for all over-75s, it would have meant unprecedented closures, including the end of BBC Two, BBC Four, the BBC News Channel, the BBC Scotland channel, Radio 5 Live, and a number of local radio stations, as well as other cuts and reductions.
- What happens now?
TV Licensing will be writing to all free over-75 licence holders before May 31 2020 to let them know how they may be affected and what they will need to do.
Face-to-face assistance will be provided for older people through an outreach programme delivered by specially trained customer care field staff and the size of the TV Licensing customer support call centre will also be increased.
TV Licensing will also launch a free telephone information line this month where older customers and their relatives can access recorded information on the new policy and advice to customers by calling 0800 232 1382.
Information and frequently asked questions can also be found on the TV Licensing website, tvl.co.uk/age.
TV Licensing will also be developing a new pay as you go payment scheme especially for customers who will need to pay for their licence from June 2020.
This scheme will let customers spread the cost of their licence in fortnightly or monthly payments to make it easier to pay.