The BBC is being forced to choose: shut channels or deprive lonely elderly people of company?

By defunding the TV licence for over-75s, the government is putting the BBC between a rock and a hard place.

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The BBC is facing a tough decision. Which is more important: its budget or old people?

By defunding free TV licences for over-75s next year, this is, paraphrased somewhat, the question the government has put to the corporation. If you care so much about the elderly watching telly, the Conservative Party has asked the BBC, why don’t you pay for them to do so?

Doing so will cost the BBC £745m by 2022, a fifth of its current budget; as much as the total amount spent on the entirety of BBC Two, BBC Three, BBC Four, the BBC News channel, CBBC and CBeebies. Hardly surprising then that the BBC has warned it will have to close channels.

The alternative, expecting the over-75s to pay for their own TV licences, is not a viable option for many. “Scrapping the free licence could potentially push around 50,000 more pensioners below the poverty line,” says Caroline Abrahams, Age UK’s charity director. She adds that “just over 40 per cent of people aged 75+ in the UK won’t be able to afford a TV licence, or will have to cut back on essentials to pay for it”.

The problem, which the government is ignoring, is not that our elderly will no longer be able to watch back-to-back Bargain Hunt and Homes under the Hammer: it’s the reason they are doing so in the first place.

The UK is in the midst of an epidemic of loneliness, and it’s the elderly who have been hardest hit. The number of over-75s living alone now stands at 2.2 million, over half the age group, and it’s a figure that’s risen by a quarter in the past 20 years. With half of all over-75s disabled, and yet more in ill health, many are left housebound and isolated. 

The further you look, the more alarming the stats become. Half a million older people go at least five days a week without seeing or speaking to anyone at all. For 200,000 of them, it has been more than a month since they last had a conversation with a friend or relative. According to Laura Alcock-Ferguson, chief executive of the Campaign to End Loneliness, television is the main source of company for almost half of older people.

Theresa May, who quietly broke her 2017 manifesto promise to ensure funding for TV licences for over-75s until 2022, is aware of this problem: she appointed a loneliness minister just last year. And this crisis is more than just heart-breaking, it’s potentially deadly; with scientists warning loneliness is as dangerous to a person’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Studies suggest that those who are lonely are more likely to suffer from dementia, heart disease and depression; that loneliness is worse for a person than obesity – even that it increases risk of death by 29 per cent.

Television is not a miracle cure. It alone cannot combat these risks. But it does provide at least some form of companionship, as well as entertainment and access to the outside world. Abrahams warns that since “many older people rely heavily on TV news to make informed decisions on important issues: losing access to this could also affect their ability to play a role in our democracy.”

This is why, in 2003, Labour introduced free television licences for over-75s. Their removal now, after almost two decades, could put many at risk of legal action for non-payment – a crime that already accounts for one in ten of the UK’s court cases. “Some [elderly people] will find it difficult to understand why they must now pay,” Abrahams explains, “this could be a particular issue for those with dementia or other forms of cognitive decline.”

The UK’s right-wing press, already frequently critical of the corporation, will likely be unforgiving if it decides against funding the licences, which is presumably in part why it has spent the past three months inviting public opinion over options.

A half-price licence for over-75s is one such proposal being considered, although, with the additional admin costs this would involve, funding this would still require the BBC to find £415m each year – the cost of running BBC Two.

The online consultation will close today, and we are likely to hear its outcome in the upcoming weeks. Yet regardless of the BBC’s eventual decision, it never should have been its to make.

“Administering and funding an entitlement for older people is a matter for government, not our national broadcaster,” says Abrahams, “It is extremely disappointing that, given its high-profile commitment to preventing and tackling loneliness, the government has so far hidden behind the BBC over the question of the future of free TV licences for over-75s.”

Nobody is suggesting that television is the solution to the UK’s loneliness crisis – this must be tackled at its root. But until the government ups efforts to do this, how can it justify taking away the one thing helping many elderly people to feel slightly less alone?

Indra is the New Statesman’s digital sub-editor.