Telegraph Voices: How will cutting free television licences affect over-75s in Sheffield?

The Sheffield Telegraph asked four contributors for their view on the BBC’s move to stop offering free TV licences to those aged over 75, apart from those who meet specific means-tested criteria.

Monday, 24th June 2019, 4:52 pm
The majority of over-75s are to lose their free TV licence.

Barbara Masters, Liberal Democrat Councillor for Ecclesall

The over-75s are worried by plans to remove their entitlement to a free TV licence and it’s not just the cost, as I discovered when discussing this with some who are directly affected by the proposals at a small community gathering.  

They considered themselves lucky - they are not housebound and reliant on the TV for company and entertainment but they all valued the range of programmes they could access.  Their key concern was to protect access to it for the most vulnerable. They all thought it was fair for those who could afford to pay to do so, if it means that those who could not would continue to receive it free.  And not all of those who spoke to me could afford the three pounds plus a week it’s likely to cost. 

That was the interesting point, and one that bothered them, who decides who can’t afford to pay?  Means testing is a very blunt instrument and will impact badly on those who are not on state benefits but have only a small private pension.  Pensions Credit is hardly generous. And, they don’t want to make applications on-line.  The statement ‘We will operate a self-verification system where individuals aged 75 or over need to demonstrate their receipt of Pension Credit in order to qualify’ from the BBC does not reassure.  We might live in a digital age but a significant number of those now with a free licence cannot engage with it in a way that younger generations can.  Arthritic hands can't easily manipulate keyboards for a start.  For some their TV is their window to the outside world.  It is callous to cut this link for those unable to afford it because the rules suddenly changed.

One said to me, it may be a benefit but most people think of it as an entitlement.  Therefore any decision on its continuation, removal or restriction to access should be taken by the Government.  It was wrong for the Government to avoid making a politically difficult decision by pushing responsibility for it onto the BBC.  

Steve Chu, chief executive, Age UK Sheffield

Imagine for a second you are so lonely that your main source of company is your television or a pet. That you have contact with another human being less than once a week. It’s a frightening thought, isn’t it? But that’s the reality for thousands people who live in Sheffield. That is why the BBC’s decision to end the automatic right to a free TV licence is such a big issue for Age UK Sheffield and the older people we serve in the city.

Our studies have shown that the main source of company for 49 per cent of people aged 65 or over is their TV or a pet; 11 per cent see a family member, friend or neighbour less than once a month; and 49 per cent of people aged 75 or over live alone. Being lonely has a negative impact on someone’s health which is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. For older people in our city, their television is literally a lifeline, something that keeps people connected to the world outside their living room.

So I am asking you to join over 560,000 people across the United Kingdom who have already signed the Age UK petition to save free TV for older people. You can sign it easily by doing an internet search for “Age UK petition”. It should be the first link on your screen.

If the BBC’s proposals are implemented, only older people who receive Pension Credit will get a free TV licence. But around 40% of people who are entitled to Pension Credit do not claim it. Some don't know they can claim, many struggle to apply and lots more feel embarrassed about needing help. These people are some of the poorest in our society.

If you know an older person in Sheffield who is living in poverty, tell them to contact us at Age UK Sheffield. We can help them to claim all the benefits they are entitled to, including Pension Credit. Last year we brought £2.6 million in extra benefit income to older people in the city – money they were entitled to but hadn’t been claiming. Our service is free, independent, and confidential. Who knows, if the BBC’s proposals go through, this may be the key to keeping a free TV licence for some people in future.

For free information and advice for anyone aged 50 or over, contact Age UK Sheffield on (0114) 250 2850.

George Lindars-Hammond, Labour Councillor for Hillsborough and Sheffield’s cabinet member for health and social care

This announcement by the BBC has been met with deserved anger. However, the Government has sought to blame the BBC for this decision, in a move which is breathtakingly hypocritical. It forced the responsibility for paying for TV licences for older people to the BBC without a penny of support to do so in 2015.

As cabinet member for health and social care in Sheffield, I have seen massive worry about this cut from across our city. I know that for the older generation, access to TV and other services from the BBC is not a ‘nice to have’ but a necessity. By providing access to news and entertainment, TV and the BBC has a hugely positive effect on people’s lives. It crucially reduces isolation but also connects people to services and important information.

The Labour Party completely rejects the argument that the public should not fund the cost of these licences. It is true that some older people can afford to pay for them but nearly two million UK pensioners live in poverty. Many of these people, despite the work done by the council and charities such as Age UK are not confident in claiming pension credit, the benefit which will be needed to claim a free TV license in future.

In fact, there is stigma associated with pension credit for many people with around 40 per cent of eligible families not claiming it. While I am committed to helping tackle this and increase take-up locally, it remains the case that making this the criteria for a free licence will leave poor pensioners choosing between paying for a TV licence with their restricted income or losing access altogether.

In shirking responsibility for this cut to benefits for pensioners, the Government is repeating a trick played with local councils providing services to older people. There is a national crisis in Social Care which is being borne by Councils – and the Government is refusing to solve this. On the issue of TV licences, the Government ought to rethink its cruel cut and continue supporting this deserved benefit for our golden generation.

Colin Sykes, former BBC employee, teacher in broadcast journalism at Sheffield University

I was at the BBC for 30 years and I think the BBC produces excellent programmes, many of which are especially enjoyed by older people. Radio in particular is a great companion for older people. This change to the licence fee was part of a political agreement, under George Osborne, that the corporation would take on responsibility for the fees. No one is sure why they agreed to it really. It was a political act forced on the BBC.

Gordon Brown introduced the free TV licence for over 75s and it is a welfare benefit, hence people in broadcasting are keen to argue that it should really be the government’s responsibility. 

Giving free licences away was a political decision.

I think what the BBC are doing is a fair compromise. Where there has been means testing some people's licences will still be covered by the broadcasters. Many pensioners can easily afford a TV licence. Hopefully the means testing scheme, giving licences to those who receive pension credit, will mean  the free TV licence is not denied to anyone who really needs it.

The current scheme costs £745m and to maintain that the BBC would have to axe a lot of people's favourite channels, including BBC 2, BBC 4, 5 Live and a number of others. They will still be paying for £250m of licences after the means testing and that is a lot of money for the BBC to give out. If they were to pay the whole sum this would have a massive negative effect on the BBC. People pay the licence fee for good quality programming and if the BBC had to pay the whole sum we would see this reflected on our screens. The corporation is already being forced to make its operation as economical as possible.

This is all especially important at a time when the corporation is facing more competition than ever from huge American corporations like Netflix and Amazon, it is even more surprising to expect the BBC to fund what is essentially a welfare benefit. Netflix and Amazon are pumping a lot of money into broadcasting.