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Attack on free TV licences isn’t fair

Dot Gibson fears that the axing of free TV licences for all over-75s is just the thin edge of the wedge

21 June, 2019 — By Dot Gibson

Islington pensioners were among campaigners at a rainy protest outside BBC offices in Salford last Friday

THIS shameful and cowardly Tory government ditched its 2015 election pledge: to keep the free TV licence for over-75-year-olds.

They handed responsibility to the BBC; so BBC chiefs, rather than government ministers, have now taken the unpopular decision that they will cut this benefit and introduce means-testing (limiting it to those on pension credit).

And surprise, surprise, amid widespread outrage from the tabloids, well-known personalities such as Ricky Tomlinson, Len Goodman, Esther Rantzen and Ben Fogle, together with thousands of pensioners, their families and organisations (the Age UK petition, sponsored also by the National Pensioners Convention, had reached almost 600,000 at the time of writing), Theresa May cynically urged the BBC to “rethink” its decision.

The free TV benefit was introduced by Labour in 2000 as part of a package of universal benefits which offset the UK’s very low state pension. (Office of National Statistics figures show that our pension is fourth from bottom out of 27 EU countries.) Other universal pensioner benefits are the free bus pass, winter fuel payments, free pre­scriptions and eye tests.

They are “universal” – everybody pays their taxes and everybody is eligible for these benefits in old age.

Currently, 3.7 million pensioners get the over-75s free TV licence, but means-testing means that only 1.5 million who are registered with the DWP for pension credit will be eligible (those whose weekly income is less than £167.25 and couples on less than £255.25).

Those whose income is just 10p above the pension credit threshold will not get the free licence. Also, two in five pensioners do not claim pension credit for a number of reasons – they are too proud, too isolated or too ill to apply, and a government policy change means that a “mixed-age” couple cannot claim pension credit until both partners are old enough.

Dot Gibson

We are right to be fearful that the cut to the free TV licence for the over-75s is just the “thin edge of the wedge”. We are already witnessing the detrimental effect on mental and physical health caused by the increase in the state pension age. Will this attack on the free TV licence be followed by attacks on other universal benefits, which represent a vital mechanism ensuring the social inclusion of older people?

Biddy Baxter, a Blue Peter editor, now 86, rightly pointed out that the cut “penalises the very age group for whom television is their major window on the world”. In a democracy, it is vital that citizens have access to information so as to make an informed choice in their lives. With increasing amounts of information shifting onto the internet, older people can feel marginalised and excluded from society.

“Loneliness is a reality for too many in our society,” said Theresa May when she launched her loneliness “social prescribing” initiative in October 2018. She appointed a Minister of Loneliness, yet at the same time her government was engineering the attack on the over-75s’ free TV licence.

Many older people rely on TV programmes for company. Data on which May based her loneliness initiative revealed that 200,000 older people in the UK had not had a conversation with a friend, relative or anyone they know for over a month. It has been proved that this is having a knock-on effect on health problems such as heart disease, strokes and Alzheimer’s disease.

So we say: the government must pay. Stop the cut to the over-75s’ free TV licence. It isn’t fair, it isn’t just. It is an attack on health and wellbeing. Sign the petition at www.ageuk.org.uk/our-impact/campaigning/save-free-tv-for-older-people/

• Dot Gibson is secretary of Islington Pensioners’ Forum, 1a Providence Court, Providence Place, N1 0RN; Ipf@islingtonpensionersforum.org; www.islingtonpensionersforum.org

BBC HQ is targeted

PENSIONERS from Islington will be protesting at BBC headquarters today (Friday) against the scrapping of free TV licences for the majority of those aged over 75.

The National Pensioners Convention, along with members of Islington Pensioners’ Forum, will protest outside BBC offices in Portland Place from noon against the decision to means-test the TV licence for older people.

Pensioners from Islington joined a rally outside BBC offices in Salford on their way home from the annual national pensioners’ convention in Blackpool last Friday.

Irma Gomez, from Highbury, who took part, said: “A lot of pensioners don’t have the money to pay for a TV licence. For a lot of people the TV is the only company they have and they can’t switch it off. People who are well off should be able to decide to pay if they want to.”

Ms Gomez said that, although “it rained very hard” during the protest, “we needed to get our voices heard”.

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