The free TV licence was introduced in 2000 in recognition that the licence fee could be a source of concern for many people over the age of 75, nearly 50% of whom were in the lowest three income deciles.
However, in 2015, the BBC reached an agreement with the Government to take on the cost of providing free TV licences by 2020/21. The BBC is now considering whether to keep, reform or end the free TV licence for over-75s. I understand the BBC is expected to reach a decision by summer 2019.
While I recognise that the BBC’s analysis shows the proportion of over-75 households in the lowest three income deciles has declined since 2000, a recent report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation outlined that pensioner poverty is rising, with one in six pensioners currently living in poverty. Ending the free TV licence could see approximately 2.4 million pensioners lose their licence and a further 50,000 pushed below the poverty line.
I understand that some wish to see the BBC introduce a means-tested approach, to preserve the licence for the poorest. This was one of the options in the BBC’s recent consultation.
My concern is that moving to a means-tested approach based upon preserving the free licence for those who receive Pension Credit, as has been suggested, would exclude two in five pensioners who should be on Pension Credit but are not. Many do not know they are eligible for Pension Credit, and others will not claim because of stigma. I fear a means-based approach could hit millions of our most vulnerable pensioners.
The TV licence is an important benefit for pensioners who suffer disproportionately from loneliness. If TV licences are ended or means-tested, millions of older people, almost half of whom consider television their main source of company, will have to pay to keep the little company they do have.
The current Government was elected on a manifesto which promised to maintain all pensioner benefits, including TV licences. I believe it must keep this promise by taking back responsibility for the TV licence.