BBC's plan to axe free TV licence for over-75s will affect 75,000 in Northern Ireland
Pensioners in Northern Ireland could suffer "great anxiety and expense" over a controversial BBC plan to means test the TV licence fee for over 75s.
The broadcaster was set to foot the bill for over 75s from 2020, but after a review said it would only be available for households receiving Pension Credit.
The Commissioner for Older People for Northern Ireland, Eddie Lynch, said the "really disappointing move" would affect over 75,000 people living here.
Poll: Should TV licences be means tested for the over 75s?Posted by Belfast Telegraph on Tuesday, June 11, 2019
He added that TV could be a lifeline and source of companionship to older people who were more likely to be living alone and with a disability.
"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," he said.
"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," Mr Lynch added.
Age NI's Head of Policy and Engagement, Eithne Gilligan, said hundreds of older people would now be hit with an annual bill they can't afford as many entitled to Pension Credit didn't collect it.
She said there would be anger towards the BBC, but it was ultimately the responsibility of the Government and urged the next Prime Minister to cover the costs until the BBC's funding was up for negotiation in 2022.
DUP North Antrim MP Ian Paisley said the BBC had taken the "easy option" to burden a huge number of pensioners.
"We already know that 650,000 of the poorest pensioner households are eligible, but do not claim Pension Credit. We know therefore that these households will be forced to pay under this announcement," he said.
He added that the licence fee had "outlived its time" as the BBC had failed to adapt to the modern broadcasting landscape.
The Sinn Fein MP for Newry and Armagh, Mickey Brady, said: "This is yet another example of the Tories penalising large sections of our society.
"This move could put the price of a TV licence beyond some pensioners which would increase isolation and have a negative impact on their mental health.
"Older people who are in receipt of pension credits will still be able to avail of free TV licences so I would encourage pensioners to check if they are eligible."
The Alliance MLA for Strangford, Kellie Armstrong, said exempting those on Pension Credit was not enough."The BBC needs to rethink this policy and show it is committed to helping prevent the isolation of older people in our society," she said.
A spokesperson for TV Licensing said it was estimated that over 1.5m residents over 75 could still receive free TV licenses if they get Pension Credit.
"We recognise that the decision will affect customers who may need extra support," they said. "From next year, TV Licensing will be providing face-to-face assistance for older people in Northern Ireland through an outreach programme delivered by specially trained customer care field staff and the size of the TV Licensing customer support call centre will also be increased."
Outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May said she was "very disappointed" with the decision and urged the BBC to look again.
The National Union of Journalists meanwhile have branded the decision "a wrongheaded act of sabotage by a government".
The BBC have said if they took on the cost of the free licenses, the extra cost would meant "unprecedented closures" across a number of channels.
BBC chairman 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 outcome. It is one we can implement and endorse. This is an outcome that is the fairest in difficult circumstances."