Hundreds of thousands of pensioners will have to choose between watching television or paying their heating bills when the BBC begins charging over-75s for the licence fee, Age UK has warned.
From June, the concession will be means-tested and only those over-75s receiving pension credit will be entitled to a free licence.
The £145.50 annual cost is equivalent to more than three months’ worth of average gas or electricity bills, or around five months’ of water bills. The requirement to pay it will be “a shock to the budgets of many older people”, the charity said as it renewed its calls for the Government to take back responsibility for the scheme.
Caroline Abrahams, Age UK’s charity director, said: “All the evidence is that if the BBC’s plan goes ahead, hundreds of thousands of over-75s will struggle to pay for their TV licence.
“As winter bites this week, we know that many pensioners are worried about their heating bills and cutting back spending on other essentials, including food, to save money wherever they possibly can.
“The last thing older people in this situation need is to be hit in the pocket again in a few months’ time and every year thereafter because they have to find the money for a TV licence too. They are already shelling out a lot on their utilities and for some an extra £150-plus a year will be a bridge too far.”
Television is a lifeline for many older people, the charity said, offering a sense of companionship and “a precious window on the world”.
The charity said: “For many older people, their TV is so much more than ‘the box in the corner of the room’... in many older people’s homes the TV goes on when they get up and off only when they go to bed.”
Those struggling on a low fixed income, battling loneliness, ill health or disabilities will be the hardest hit, it added.
The charity estimates that two in five people eligible for Pension Credit because their income is so low do not claim it, either because they are unaware of it, unable to navigate the complicated application process, or are simply too proud to accept benefits.
Ms Abrahams said that “they and others whose incomes are only just above the line are set to face horrible decisions over whether they can afford to continue to watch TV at all.”
She added: “It’s completely wrong to put the oldest people in our society through this. We urge the Government to act now to save the free TV licence and put millions of anxious older people’s minds at rest.”
However, the Government is adamant that the BBC must shoulder the £745 million per year cost of the scheme.
The Prime Minister has not responded to a petition handed in to No 10 by Age UK last year, which had over 630,000 signatures.
The BBC insists that it cannot afford it, saying that maintaining the universal scheme would necessitate the closure of BBC Two, BBC Four, the BBC News channel, Radio 5 Live and BBC Scotland, plus local radio stations and other services. The new scheme will cost £250 million per year.
Over-75s have begun receiving letters from TV Licensing informing them that the existing scheme ends on May 31.