From the Spectator
By Ross Clark “One wonders what Tom Watson would have left in his vocabulary if the Conservatives announced a policy of kicking away the crutches of the elderly, given, that is, that he described the ‘Tory’ policy of abolishing free TV licences for the over 75s as ‘utterly callous’.
“Ending universal free licences for the over 75s is not, of course, a Conservative policy, it was a decision made by the BBC itself in order to preserve the earnings of Gary Lineker, although to be fair to Watson the government did hand the BBC the power to make that decision. Now, though, the Conservatives seem themselves to be edging back to a policy of maintaining free licences for the over 75s, Boris Johnson has reportedly promised to make the policy an election priority.
“Universal free TV licences for the over 75s are in one sense absurd. Being over 75 is a poor marker for poverty. On the contrary, in this age group are some of the country’s wealthiest citizens. It is hard to see, for example, why Lord Heseltine should get to watch “Strictly” for free when a family living on the National Living Wage has to pay up. But there is a far braver policy which would not merely free the over 75s from having to pay for a TV licence, it would free us all from having to buy one. It is to abolish the TV licence altogether and instead force the BBC to raise its revenue from advertising, subscriptions or a mixture of both. [The BBC gross licence revenue is now £3.17billion!]
“The arguments for axing the licence have been well-aired here before. The TV licence is a straightforward tax on TV ownership. It creates a grossly unfair market in television programmes, where the provider is lavished with money extracted from the pockets of viewers who do not even like its programmes. Even if you do like the BBC’s output, you should be worried by its determination to remain reliant on this source of revenue: the number of licences sold last year fell as more and more, especially young, people came to the conclusion there is no need to own a TV when they can get all the entertainment they need on the internet, much of it for free. Unless the BBC moves to a proper commercial footing it faces the gradual withering of its income.
“That Corbyn should want to support the continued existence of the TV licence is no surprise, he does, after all, want to nationalise most utilities. But why the Conservatives have failed to do away with it is more puzzling. In just about every other industry they have championed the case for private competition, in some cases to the point of wholesale privatisation. So why is state TV and radio apparently so sacred to them? Do they secretly fear that a BBC not in the pay of the state would be less fair to them come election time, that it would give them less leverage in their moaning about BBC bias? If that is their reason, it is a pretty feeble one, and is becoming redundant given the PM’s reluctance to appear on the BBC.
“Or do they fear that the public would be outraged if the licence were to be abolished and they faced the prospect of having to pay a subscription if they wanted to watch some or all of the BBC’s output? If this has been their fear, we are getting a better picture of what the public really thinks about having to pay for a TV licence. Many over 75s don’t think they should have to pay and neither do many young people. The time would be perfect, in other words, for the Conservatives to put in their manifesto that the TV licence will be abolished when the BBC charter next comes up for renewal. They might be pleasantly surprised at how popular such a policy turned out to be”.
As Labour election candidate Rosie Cooper has said “The Tories should be hanging their head in shame at the way they are planning to strip older people of their free TV licences. For West Lancashire alone an estimated 5,600 over 75s with dementia face losing their free TV licence. Older people with dementia often struggle with daily tasks and their television is a comfort. It would be a terrible cruelty to take their TV licence away and force them to reapply and pay for it. The government should halt this callous policy immediately and save TV licences”. Who could argue against that?