Many older people in Northern Ireland fear the scrapping of free TV licences for over-75s is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of cutbacks that will impact them.
That was the fear voiced by service users at a day centre in Dunmurry run by the charity Age NI, where many older people have voiced concerns about how they are going to afford to pay for a TV licence.
The BBC announced on Monday that free licences for over-75s are to be means tested from June next year, meaning the concession will only be available to households receiving pension credit.
The NI commissioner for older people has warned that the move could impact more than 75,000 people across the Province. And Age NI said the change will see many local pensioners hit with an annual bill they simply cannot afford.
At the charity’s Anna House Day Centre, service user Anne Gowdy, 85, said she doesn’t get pension credit and wouldn’t qualify for a free licence.
Describing the move as “unfair”, she said: “They’re taking the free television licence off us now, what’s next? And there will be a next. And that is the fear for myself and many others.
“With Northern Ireland not having a government I’m afraid they’ll bring in council tax or something like that and I don’t know how we’d live if they brought that in.”
Mrs Gowdy, who suffers from ill health, says she has to stick to a tight budget at present, and fears the additional cost of a TV licence means she may have to choose between having a television and making cutbacks in other areas such as food shopping.
“I live on my own and I rely on the TV. It is a source of companionship – the noise keeps the loneliness at bay. I’m afraid I might have to forgo my television,” she added.
Gillian Thompson, manager of Anna House Day Centre, said many of the older people who use the facility have real concerns about the TV licence fee changes.
“They feel their outgoings are enough already without an additional charge coming into their lives,” she said.
“We find our older people worry enough about money without this new BBC licence charge being put on to them. I really am disgusted, the fact that many of our older people are struggling to make ends meet and provide for themselves, it’s terrible. It really is very worrisome for them.”
Mrs Thompson, who has been manager of the day centre for 10 years, said the additional outgoing may force some older people to cut back on necessities, and said the government should step in and keep funding the concession for all over-75s.
Tommy Larmour, 75, from Lisburn has been attending Anna House since his wife passed away nearly three years ago.
The former bricklayer feels that those who have enough money to pay for a TV licence should do so, but added that he sympathises with those who will be hit with an additional bill that they can ill afford.
“It is just something I’ve always had to pay so it won’t really change anything for me,” he said.
“I’m fortunate that I have enough to see me through, but for others who find it hard to make ends meet it seems unfair.”
Reacting to the BBC’s announcement that from next summer free TV licences for over-75 will be means tested, Advice NI has urged older people across Northern Ireland to check if they are eligible for pension credit.
Stressing that many older people “rely on television as a lifeline,” the organisation’s head of policy Kevin Higgins said: “We already know that there are problems with eligibility and uptake of pension credit, and many people who are entitled to it don’t claim it. The TV licence change could well plunge low income pensioner households deeper into poverty.”
He said TV Licensing will be writing to those who have a free over-75 licence to let them know about the changes and make clear that they remain covered until May 31, 2020.
Mr Higgins urged people to check if they are eligible for pension credit by calling 0808 802 0020.