The government and the BBC have been accused of letting down older people after it was announced that free TV licences for over-75s are to be means tested from next year.
From June 2020 around 3.7 million households across the UK which previously received a free licence will now have to pay for one.
The BBC was set to take on the financial burden of providing free licences for over-75s from the government in 2020. However, after a review, the concession will now be available only to households receiving pension credit.
The BBC said it had put “fairness and supporting those most in need” at the heart of its decision, but the move has been criticised by Eddie Lynch, the commissioner for older people for Northern Ireland, and many others including Prime Minister Theresa May.
Warning that older people who rely on TV for companionship will have found yesterday’s announcement “distressing”, Mr Lynch said: “This is really disappointing news which will affect over 75,000 people over the age of 75 living in Northern Ireland.
“It’s my view that both the government and the BBC have let down over-75s in the UK by failing to find a way to continue funding this concession, especially given the fact that they had four years to come up with a solution to mitigate cost or consider other sources of income.”
Mr Lynch added: “For many older people, TV is a lifeline and often a source of companionship and comfort. People over 75 are more likely to be living alone, living with a disability and have fewer opportunities to remedy the causes of isolation and loneliness.
“It’s becoming increasingly acknowledged the impact that loneliness has on people’s health – the effects of loneliness can be as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
“As a society, we can’t keep talking about supporting our older population and then make decisions that negatively impact them. I feel disappointed today for many older people who will no doubt find this news distressing.”
Eithne Gilligan, head of policy and engagement at Age NI, said: “We are deeply disappointed with the decision made by the BBC to opt for means testing and to ask older people to self-declare if they receive pension credit in order to receive the TV licence fee concession. This decision will mean that hundreds of pensioners will face a new annual bill they simply can’t afford because, although eligible for pension credit, they don’t actually get it.
“We know from speaking to older people in Northern Ireland that the BBC’s decision will cause great anxiety and distress to those who rely on TV for companionship, their connection to the world beyond their home and to reducing loneliness.
“There will also be some anger too at the decision made by the BBC but in the end this is the responsibility of the UK government. We hope that the new prime minister will intervene and provide sufficient funding to continue the concession until the BBC’s overall funding deal comes up for negotiation in 2022.”
North Antrim MP Ian Paisley branded the BBC’s decision “a disgrace” and accused the broadcaster of “taking the easy option” and “burdening pensioners” with additional cost.
“Passing this cost on to pensioners will not solve the real long-term issues facing the BBC however; that the licence fee itself is an anachronism in the modern broadcasting landscape,” he said.
“The government should fund this concession until 2022, but if the BBC are determined to press ahead then it must be monitored closely by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee. The BBC must be held properly to account for the decisions they are taking and the impact it will have on many people who can ill-afford this extra financial burden.”
According to her official spokesman, Prime Minister Theresa May was “very disappointed” with the BBC’s decision and has urged it to look again at ways of supporting older people.
It is thought 1.5 million households will be eligible for the free licence under the new scheme, which will cost the BBC around £250 million by 2021/22 depending on the take-up.
Facing financial pressures and attempting to streamline, the BBC has said previously that shouldering the burden of free licences would “fundamentally change” the broadcaster.
Chairman of the BBC Sir David Clementi said: “Linking a free licence for over-75s to pension credit was the leading reform option. It protects the poorest over-75s, while protecting the services that they, and all audiences, love.
“It is the fairest and best outcome. It is one we can implement and endorse. This is an outcome that is the fairest possible in difficult circumstances.”