The Tories have broken a key manifesto pledge after the BBC announced on Tuesday (June 10) that free TV licences for over-75s would be scrapped.
From June 2020, TV licences, which now cost £154.50, will be means-tested — only low-income households with at least one person in receipt of pension credit benefit will be eligible for a free licence.
Unite has lambasted the government over its failure to protect the TV licence scheme for over 75s despite an explicit pledge in the 2017 Tory manifesto that it would do so. The new system could see up to 3.7m pensioners lose their free TV licences.
In 2015, the government announced that it would no longer pay for the free TV licence scheme and would instead shift the cost to the BBC as part of a fee settlement. From 2016, the government said it would subsidise the cost transitionally until 2020, when the BBC would begin paying for free TV licences in full.
Now, the BBC has said it cannot afford to pay for free TV licences – it would have cost the BBC £750m – or a fifth of its budget – by 2021/22. The BBC warned that paying for free TV licences would lead to “unprecedented closures”.
Unite assistant general secretary for retired members Steve Turner called the decision a “retrograde step for millions of pensioners who now face either losing access to a lifeline or jumping through hoops to get it for free”.
“It ends the universal nature of a free TV licence for over 75s and could price older people living in isolation out of receiving an important link with their community and the wider world,” he said.
Indeed, research from Age UK into isolation among older people found that nearly half of people over 65 report that pets or television are their main form of company.
MPs demand answers
This was a point highlighted by Labour’s shadow culture secretary Tom Watson who criticised the decision to means test for free TV licences.
“You cannot means test for social isolation,” he said. “You cannot means test for loneliness.”
In the Commons this afternoon (June 11), cross-party MPs slammed the government for blaming the BBC in an urgent question on TV licences.
Labour MP Ben Bradshaw said he was “aghast” at the culture secretary for “washing his hands of this”.
“This is nothing to do with the BBC,” he said. “It’s about the government who has passed a social issue to a public broadcaster.”
Labour MP Yvette Cooper added that the government “pushed this on the BBC – in the face of all the warnings and the consequences.
“Forget crocodile tears,” she said. “The government is taking away £150 from pensioners who have only £10,000 per year.”
Critics have highlighted that despite the BBC saying the poorest pensioners will still receive free TV licences, many on low-incomes who do not qualify for pension credit will still lose out. For example, a pensioner with a meagre income of £8,800 is not eligible for pension credit and so would lose her free TV licence.
Turner joined the call against the decision to scrap the free licence scheme and replace it with a means-tested system.
‘Back door’ cut
“For many older people unused to claiming benefits and often declining to do so even when entitled, forcing them to claim complicated pension credits over the phone or with the assistance of services cut to the bone by years of government austerity is a disgrace,” he said.
Equalities officer of the Unite retired members branch in Swansea, Derek Roberts, agreed.
“We saw what happened with pension credit – the take-up was very low, which is exactly what this austerity-obsessed government wanted, and it’s exactly what will happen if TV licences are means-tested. It’s a shameless cut through the back door,” he told UniteLive.
Speaking today (June 11) from the National Pensioners Convention’s Pensioners’ Parliament in Blackpool, Derek placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of the government.
“It was wrong for the government to shift the cost for free TV licences to the BBC,” he said. “The TV licence scheme was started to compensate for the low level of the state pension in the first place. The state pension remains scandalously low and so it is the government’s responsibility to protect this vital entitlement for over-75s.”
“Scrapping free TV licences is a direct attack on the generations and will only further stoke intergenerational divides,” Derek added, noting that the issue would be raised in an emergency motion at the Pensioners’ Parliament. “People of all ages should stand united against this – after all, we will all be old one day.
“Instead of further eroding an already shamefully low state pension, the government should enhance it; protect it using the higher measure of inflation; and stop messing with the state pension age, especially for women, hundreds of thousands of whom now face serious financial hardship because of changes to the state pension age that were railroaded through without adequate warning.”
Turner called on the BBC to rethink its decision and the government to “fund this lifeline by providing the funding needed to ensure all over 75s get a free TV licence from general taxation”.
“If these plans go ahead we will see people in their later years who are dependent on their treasured TV for news and companionship cut off from the outside world and forced to give it up, or even fined for viewing without a licence.”