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Keeping free TV licences for over 75s more necessary than ever in the age of Coronavirus says Age UK

Published on 03 June 2020 11:08 AM

BBC's proposed charging plan would inadvertently increase the risks to older people of contracting the virus

Age UK is calling for free TV licences for over 75s to be saved as the Coronavirus pandemic shows just how essential a lifeline television is for many older people.

The Charity is also pointing out that the BBC's proposed replacement plan poses a clear risk to public health, because the processes envisaged contravene the official advice the Government has issued, inadvertently placing some older people at heightened risk of contracting the virus.

The Charity welcomed the BBC Board's decision to delay introduction of its proposed plan to replace the free TV licence for over 75s on account of the pandemic, but said at the time that a pause of just two months was not long enough. The BBC's new arrangements, which would deprive all over-75s of their free licence unless they receive Pension Credit, were originally due to come into force on June 1st but have been put back until the beginning of August.

When this announcement was made Age UK said the BBC's plan should be delayed until at least the end of 2020. However, given that the virus is now expected to be menacing older people for some considerable time to come, with additional waves predicted by experts as more likely than not, the Charity says that the right thing to do is for the BBC to scrap its charging plan entirely and sit down with Ministers to agree a different approach so these licences can stay free.

In order to keep your free licence if you are on Pension Credit under the BBC's plan you need to send in documentary evidence. The leaflet about the BBC's new scheme advised older people that they could get this photocopied at their local corner shop, or public library, and yet older people who are shielding are still being advised to avoid all shops, while meanwhile libraries remain closed.

The BBC also said that teams of contracted workers will visit older people in their own homes to help them complete their new TV licence documentation, but this too is currently not allowed and is unlikely to be so any time soon for anyone who has been told to shield.

More than 950,000 people aged 70+ in England (12%, one in eight) (i) are on the shielded patient list for Coronavirus and having to live very restricted lives. Although now allowed to leave home once a day to meet one other person outside, provided they abide by the social distancing rules, they will still be spending almost all their time at home.

In addition to this shielded group there are hundreds of thousands more older people who live with someone who is highly vulnerable, or who are struggling to get through the pandemic because of their mental and physical health problems. These over-75s too are likely to be mostly confined to their own four walls, without much contact with family and friends, for the foreseeable future. The TV is unbelievably precious to many of them as a result.

Since its introduction in 2000, the free licence has been a highly valued, universal entitlement for the over-75s which has helped millions to sustain their quality of life into late old age. Research for Age UK shows that even before the lockdown television was the main form of company for two in every five aged 75+ and nine out of 10 in this age group watch TV every day[ii] It is particularly important for the 2 million over-75s who live alone – many of whom may well struggle to bear the additional cost of a TV licence on a single income – and the 1.5 million over-75s who are sometimes or often lonely.[iii]

The BBC plans to means test TV licences for the over 75s, with the result that they'll only continue to be free for people receiving Pension Credit. Age UK believe this change will be a huge blow for millions of older people who rely on their TV and that the most vulnerable will be forced to cut back on essentials to make end meet, or lose out on TV altogether.

Two fifths of the older people who are entitled to Pension Credit – about 590,000 over-75s - aren't getting it. Some don't know they can claim, many struggle to apply and lots more feel embarrassed about needing help. These pensioners are some of the poorest in our society and if the BBC's charging plan comes into force they will really struggle.

Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director at Age UK, said: "Keeping TV licences free for our over 75s is more important than ever before now, because older people are relying on their TV for news, for the latest information about staying safe and for entertainment to distract them from the anxiety and sadness so many feel.

"Lots of older people have struggled throughout their working life to save a little extra for retirement. But that small pot of savings for a rainy day means they don't qualify for means-tested benefits. Others are coping with the costs of ill-health or disability, or missing out on the benefits they are due. Taking all these older people's free TV licences away would be a cruel blow at a time like this.

"There are compelling public health reasons too why the free TV licence regime needs to stay in place for as long as Coronavirus poses a threat, which is likely to be the case for many months, or even years, to come.

"For the sake of older people's health as well as their wellbeing it is imperative that free TV licences for our over-75s are retained. The last thing anyone in the BBC or Government wants, I am sure, is to add to the risks of any older person contracting this deadly virus and yet, as it stands, the BBC's replacement scheme look like doing precisely this. That's because the new process it envisages will force some older people out and about to get their pension credit documents photocopied, or lead to them hosting a visit from staff whose job it is to help them to complete the new forms. Both these activities go against the current guidance for older people who are shielding and that's because they increase the risk of infection. The more these activities can be avoided the better, for as long as Coronavirus continues to circulate in our society. "

"For both both moral and public health reasons free TV licences for our over-75s should be retained."

Notes to Editors 
(i) NHS Digital, Coronavirus shielded patient list. https://digital.nhs.uk/dashboards/shielded-patient-list-open-data-set

(ii) TNS polling for Age UK, 2016'

(iii) Kantar TNS polling for Age UK, 2016.

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Last updated: Jun 11 2020

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