A 93-year-old army veteran who spent 33 years in active service. A woman whose nearest family member is in Scotland. An 88-year-old with mobility issues that prohibit him from leaving the house. These are the people in Portsmouth who responded to my call out to constituents to share their views with me as their MP on the revocation of the free TV licence for over-75s. Following the Tories’ U-turn and the BBC’s recent decision, these are the people set to suffer most under these changes.
This is the generation that, from the rubble and ashes of World War Two, shaped the modern world we now live in. The generation where more girls went on to higher education than ever before, increasing female independence and making aspirations beyond motherhood mainstream for women across the UK. The generation that decriminalised homosexuality and fought bitter battles in parliament and on the streets, forging the path for the modern LGBT+ movements we see today. The generation that fought for the British Army across three continents picking up injuries and stories along the way.
Despite all that has been done by this pioneering, hard-working generation, the government has left them by the way side. With many people unable to leave the house without assistance and others isolated and alone in parts of the country, the termination of universally free TV licences for over-75s will have significant consequences for social isolation and loneliness amongst this group in our society. A fact that I know to be true in my home city of Portsmouth.
In response to over 10,000 letters that I sent out to constituents, urging them to share with me their perspective on this policy, hundreds got in touch with their concerns. A steady stream of emails, phone calls and letters reached my office containing heart-wrenching accounts of what they felt life would be like without a free TV licence.
“I lost my wife in January and now I spend a lot of time alone. Having the TV on in the background is like having someone with me, I do not know what I would do without it.”
“Sally has dementia and is unable to read or write anymore. TV is vital stimulation, otherwise she sits staring into space. No way could she afford to pay for a license on a state pension”.
These are just two accounts of the hundreds that I received. They paint a bleak picture of life without the free TV licence.
The justification offered by government in favour of means-testing for free TV licences through Pension Credit is unequivocally flawed. It is estimated that around 1.3 million over-75s are eligible for Pension Credit but do not or cannot claim for the benefit. This may be due to an inability to use a computer, mobility issues that prevent leaving the house or simply that nobody has informed them that the benefit exists. Some older people will struggle to ‘self-validate’ that they are in receipt of Pension Credit, however straightforward the process is, for example, because they are living with some loss of cognitive function or chronic illness.
These vulnerable individuals who have fallen through the extensive cracks in our welfare system now face the additional financial strain and stress of losing their free TV licence. I recently met with Age UK and local pensioner groups who shared this concern. Age UK predict that while means-testing may sound fair, in reality it will result in at least 650,000 of our poorest pensioners facing an ominous new annual bill they simply can’t afford.
When I stood in the House of Commons and posed these questions directly to the government minister responsible, the House was told that this was not a government decision but in fact a decision made by the BBC. When did broadcasting organisations in receipt of public money begin being responsible for the administration of social welfare? Should we prepare ourselves for a world where Marks and Spencer or Tesco are responsible for paying out universal credit? Will National Express be forced to foot the bill for the free bus pass for over-60s?
The BBC is not the DWP and any attempts by the government to pass the buck are unconvincing and shameful. For the BBC to continue the free TV licence, it would have cost them over a fifth of their entire budget – there can be no denying that this was a government decision.
The PM promised when she took office to tackle the burning injustices faced by today’s society. This is why I, along with Portsmouth Pensioners Association, have written a jointly penned letter urging the government not to leave a legacy that tells a story of indifference. I hope the Prime Minister can leave with a show of leadership and, in one of her final acts as PM, commit the government to taking back responsibility for this integral social benefit.