reports “The Over-75s’ TV licence scheme in chaos as BBC demands to see bank statements” and “Pensioners must provide detailed proof of income to keep watching for free”. The hell we will!
The BBC’s move to make over-75s pay for television licences descended into farce yesterday after the website crashed as soon as the charge was introduced. Viewers trying to pay were greeted with a message that said the service was “temporarily unavailable while we update it for the changes to over-75 licences”, before the site was restored last night.
The Labour peer Lord Foulkes of Cumnock
described the situation as “farcical”. “We said this would be an administrative nightmare and that has proved to be the case” he said. “It will also cause distress among some elderly people who are already worried about how they will pay”.
Since yesterday, only over-75s who receive pension credit are still exempt from paying the £157.50 a year, although letters informing pensioners of this change were not sent out in advance, and some will not be posted until September. The site was down for maintenance on Friday night. A viewer who tried to pay on Friday claimed the site’s message had said it would be back up yesterday morning.
The broadcaster is facing additional criticism after it emerged that pensioners are being asked for their bank statements to prove that they do not need to pay the licence fee. Some callers to a hotline set up to help pensioners with the change are being advised to send bank statements to the TV Licensing offices [That’s Crapita, to you and me!] to prove that they receive pension credit.
Campaigners warned that the measure put the elderly at a risk of identity theft and fraud. “It will be extremely frustrating for older people to hear how potentially risky the process of applying for a free licence seems to be” said Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK. Creating and sending copies of sensitive personal and financial information can expose older people to ID theft and fraud”.
Advisers on the helpline, which is run by the outsourcing giant Capita, initially tell callers to photocopy or scan pension credit documents. Many elderly people do not have access to a photocopier, however, especially with the lockdown limiting their ability to visit shops.
The alternative was to post a bank statement or the original award letter for pension credit, with a note requesting its return, one adviser said. On another call, a different employee said a “verbal declaration” over the phone giving pension credit information would secure a reprieve. Pensioners who were deaf or had difficulty speaking could instead post a bank statement, he added. About 70% of people over the age of 70 have some hearing loss, according to the Action on Hearing Loss charity.
A handler on the helpline directed one caller to Citizens Advice for assistance with the licence fee, as he said he was unable to help further. The Capita employee added that many letters informing the elderly of the change would not be sent out until September, a full month after the charge had been imposed. The letters would offer access to a text service for deaf viewers, the BBC said.
Lord Foulkes said the hotline’s suggestions proved it was “unworkable” to reimpose the fee. “This decision was wrong in principle as it will increase loneliness in elderly people, but this has shown it is also really impractical,” he said. “I think it is unworkable, a nightmare.”
The BBC had failed to explain to him how TV Licensing would determine who received pension credit, he added “If the elderly post bank statements, they are at an increased risk of identity theft.” Age UK had raised concerns that the loss of the exemption would put the elderly at greater risk of TV licence scams, which are already common. “In 2018-19, £2.2m was lost to criminals this way and we previously predicted a 13% rise in these scams if the free TV licence scheme was removed,” said Abrahams.
The licence fee exemption was introduced in November 2000 by the Labour government. In 2015 George Osborne, the Tory chancellor, handed responsibility for funding the benefit to the BBC, with the government phasing out its contribution to the scheme. However, Boris Johnson had pledged in November to save the free licences.
The BBC said: “To make the 75+ Plan available for customers online, the TV Licensing website was temporarily offline on Saturday, as was always planned. TV Licensing are not actively seeking bank statements, this is simply an option and we don’t expect to make very much use of it. The TV Licensing team take extreme care with personal data and have a wide range of measures in place to protect it”.
West Lancashire over 75s should not feel obliged to pay any BBC Licence fee, but should post any letter from Crapita to Boris Johnson at 10 Downing Street London and invite him to pay it as he promised to save the free licences. Above all, do not in any circumstances put your private financial data at risk.