Members of Age NI’s consultative forum have pleaded with the Government to step in and stop moves towards means testing for free TV licences for over-75s.
They described the BBC’s announcement that from June next year around 3.7 million households across the UK which previously received a free licence will now have to pay for one as “another blow to older people”.
The broadcaster, which is set to take on the financial burden of providing the concession for over-75s, said it will now be available only to households receiving pension credit.
According to the NI Commissioner for Older People, the move will affect more than 75,000 senior citizens across Northern Ireland.
While the BBC has faced a public backlash over its decision, members of Age NI’s consultative forum – a group of older people who identify needs and concerns of older people in relation to poverty, health, equality and other issues and communicate them to the charity – insist the issue must be dealt with by the Government.
“It seems that all the blame for this is being placed on the BBC whereas in reality it is the Government that has instigated this change and the BBC is responding to it,” said David Florida-James, a retired teacher from Limavady.
“It is going to hit people like me. I am 80, I live alone, and the television is so important to me. It is my contact with the world and I know there are lots of people like myself. And I know that as I get older it will become more and more important and I also know that as I get older my expenses will increase but my income won’t increase, and I am going to find it increasingly difficult to make payments for a television licence and items like that.”
Mr Florida-James, who says he would qualify for pension credit if he received “about £3-a-week less”, added: “It is going to affect a lot of senior citizens who don’t have a very good income. A lot of people of my age group have very small pensions from their work and for a lot of us things are going to be very difficult.
“The Government should be making this decision, not the BBC. This is another blow to older people. Please, don’t take it away from us.”
Speaking after the issue was discussed by forum members at their meeting in Belfast on Thursday morning, 79-year-old Anne Watson from Newtownabbey said the concession should be retained for all over-75s.
“I think this is going to be a big blow for an awful lot of older people. This is going to be another £154 they are going to have to find, and they’re not going to get a rise in their pension to that stage,” she said.
“I don’t blame the BBC. They have had this thrust upon them. The Government offered it to people and they gave it to the BBC and now it is being taken away, so the buck stops with the Government.”
A number of high profile figures have backed the campaign calling for the retention of free licences for all over-75s.
Broadcaster and author Melvyn Bragg blamed a “mean snatch and grab raid” by the Government for the BBC’s decision, while former Strictly Come Dancing judge Len Goodman said the move will “impact on the most vulnerable” but didn’t blame the BBC.
Actor and comedian Ricky Tomlinson branded the move “an absolute disgrace” and insisted the Government must keep funding the concession.
The BBC said it had put “fairness and supporting those most in need” at the heart of its decision.
Its chairman, Sir David Clementi, said: “Linking a free licence for over-75s to pension credit was the leading reform option. It protects the poorest over-75s, while protecting the services that they, and all audiences, love.
“It is the fairest and best outcome. It is one we can implement and endorse. This is an outcome that is the fairest possible in difficult circumstances.”
CHARITY CALLS ON PEOPLE TO SIGN PETITION
Age NI has urged people across Northern Ireland to sign Age UK’s online petition calling on the Government to take back responsibility for funding free TV licences for over-75s.
The charity stressed that since its introduction in 2000, the concession has been a valued universal benefit, with television providing entertainment, news and much needed company for many older people.
According to Age UK, the BBC’s decision to only give free licences to those in receipt of pension credit from next summer “will harm millions of older people who rely on their TV” and will be “a cruel blow” to many.
At the time of writing, the charity’s ‘Switched Off: Save free TV for older people’ petition had been signed by more than 465,000 people.
Urging people to back the petition, Eithne Gilligan, Age NI’s head of policy and engagement said: “The BBC has announced they will now means test free TV licences from the over-75s. Means-testing may sound fair but in reality it means that many pensioners will face a new annual bill they simply can’t afford.
“The Government created this problem and it is in their power to solve it. We believe the Government should take back responsibility for funding free TV licences for everyone over 75.
“We are urging people of all ages to sign Age UK’s ‘Switched Off’ petition and share it via social media and word of mouth.”
Anyone who wants to sign the petition can do so online at www.ageuk.org.uk/tvpetition
Any older person who is worried about money and/or losing their free TV licence can call the Age NI Advice Service on 0800 808 7575.
'LOSS OF FREE TV LICENCES WILL IMPACT PEOPLE'S HEALTH'
Taking free TV licences off millions of over-75s could have a major knock-on effect on the health service, an older people’s campaigner has warned.
Anne Watson, a member of Age Sector Platform’s NI Pensioners Parliament and Age NI’s consultative forum, stressed that many older people who live alone rely on television for companionship.
“It was the Government who introduced this to help older older people because they are more housebound than the younger older people, and I think this will have a terribly crucial affect on their health,” she said. “They talk about how bad the health situation is at the minute. It is going to be 10 times worse if they do this.”
She continued: “Heat and eat was important. Heat and eat and TV is going to be three things now that older people have to decide what they spend their money on. And the people who decide not to have a television are going to lose something that is a part of their life that keeps them connected with the outside world.
“The Government are looking at the problem of loneliness in old age and yet they are now doing this – well the BBC are doing it, but they passed the buck to the BBC so they need to take it back on again.”
Mrs Watson said the next Prime Minister should “look at the issue very carefully” and ensure the Government keeps funding the concession.