A licence to break a promise?

Free TV licences for over 75s were introduced in 2000, when Gordon Brown was Chancellor.
The rationale was that the TV plays an important tool in the battle against loneliness and social isolation. Four in 10 older people say the television is their main source of company. Many are unable to enjoy other social activities. Christmas is a particularly bad time for loneliness; analysis by Age UK found that almost a million pensioners wouldn’t have seen or heard from anyone over the festive period.
The cost of the free licences is expected to reach £745m by 2021/22 and will continue to rise because of the increasing numbers of older people. This is equivalent to about a fifth of the BBC’s budget – the equivalent to what is spent today on all of BBC Two, BBC Three, BBC Four, the BBC News Channel, CBBC and CBeebies. 
As part of the negotiations in 2014/15 over the TV Licence Fee, the BBC Governors foolishly agreed that the BBC would take responsibility for the cost of pensioners’ free licences, despite not having the resources to fund them in the longer-term. Basically, the Conservative government had threatened a lower Licence Fee – and therefore less money for the BBC – if they didn’t agree. This meant that, starting from this year, the BBC has taken responsibility for funding free TV licence fees of those over 75 and it also has the power to scrap or reduce the number or scope of free licences.
Along with my Labour colleagues, I opposed this move at the time, and throughout the passage of the legislation – Digital Economy Act – through Parliament. When Conservative Ministers were challenged about this, they denied that Free TV Licences for over 75s were under threat.
Under further challenge during the 2017 general election campaign, the 2017 Conservative Manifesto promised to “maintain all other pensioner benefits, including free bus passes, eye tests, prescriptions and TV licences, for the duration of this Parliament”, that is until 2022.
But now, the BBC has started a consultation on whether to scrap free licences completely, or to raise the age threshold or to means test access to a free licence from 2020. Under each of the changes proposed by the BBC in their consultation, millions of pensioners will lose their free licences.
Nationally, if the free licence is linked to pension credit, i.e. means tested, over 3 million people would lose their free licence. If the eligibility age was raised to 80 over 1.8 million older people would lose their free licences.
In my constituency, about 6500 pensioners – nearly 4000 of them over 80 years old – currently get a Free TV Licence. About 67% of them – more than 4300 – would lose eligibility if it were dependent on pension credit. Nearly 40% – more than 2500 – would lose out if eligibility was raised to 80.
In South Yorkshire, about 100,000 pensioners – some 75000 of them over 80 years old – currently get a Free TV Licence. About 78,000 would lose out if eligibility was dependent on pension credit. And more than 40,000 households would lose out if eligibility was raised to 80.
The prospect of elderly people losing their free TV Licence makes a mockery of Mrs May’s claim that austerity is over. If she has any integrity, she would step in now and keep to the promise she made.

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