Wednesday 21 August 2019

Dame Helen Mirren: End of universal TV licence for over-75s is heartbreaking

Stars Sir Lenny Henry and Amanda Redman have also signed an open letter to the next PM, urging the Government to reconsider.

Dame Helen Mirren (Ian West/PA)
Dame Helen Mirren (Ian West/PA)

By Sherna Noah, PA Senior Entertainment Correspondent

Dame Helen Mirren has urged the next prime minister to restore free TV licences for all over-75s, calling the end of the universal entitlement “heartbreaking”.

From June next year, the benefit will be restricted to over-75s who claim pension credit, with the BBC saying it cannot afford to take on the financial burden from the Government.

Now Sir Lenny Henry, actress Amanda Redman, Gogglebox star June Bernicoff and Dame Helen are among 20 celebrities who have signed an open letter on the issue.

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Sir Lenny Henry (Ian West/PA)

Oscar-winner Dame Helen, 73, said: “It’s just absolutely heartbreaking that so many older people are going to lose their free licence, when television plays such an important role in their lives.

“In many cases it acts as an important contact with the outside world.

“I would urge all those involved, including the Government, to do the right thing and to carry on funding free licences for all over-75s – the cost of which is surely a small price to pay for keeping so many vulnerable older people connected.”

Gogglebox star Bernicoff, 81, said: “For many older people television is their only company in the evenings.

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Amanda Redman (Ian West/PA)

“It is a lifeline that keeps them involved, entertained and engaged and to take that away from them would be isolating and heartbreakingly unfair.”

Other star signatories to the letter – to be delivered to Conservative Party headquarters by Age UK –  include Christopher Biggins,
Angela Rippon, Lionel Blair, Ricky Tomlinson, Ben Fogle, Len Goodman and Lesley Joseph.

Miriam Margolyes, Kevin Whately, Nick Hewer, Matthew Wright, Levi Roots, Sylvia Syms, James Acaster and Ed Balls have also signed up.

The letter states: “We collectively urge the next prime minister, whoever that may be, to save free TV licences for the over-75s.”

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Len Goodman previously criticised the end of the entitlement (Ian West/PA)

Celebrities say they are “deeply worried about the poorest older people who are set to lose out” because of pension credit being under-claimed.

“For those who have lost a loved one, live alone, don’t have family around and live with poor mobility and health issues, the TV provides a great source of companionship,” it says.

“It helps them connect to the outside world and brings news and entertainment to lonely and dark days.

It adds: “Responsibility for paying for free TV licences for the over-75s should never have been handed over to the BBC in the first place.

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Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt. (Yui Mok/PA)

“It is the Government’s place to fund free TV licences and we call on the Government to think again and do what’s right for the oldest in our society. TV is their lifeline – their friend. Please don’t take it away from them.”

The BBC has come under fire for handing a number of its stars pay rises while at the same time as the axing of the universal benefit.

BBC chairman Sir David Clementi has dismissed the suggestion that the corporation could fund the benefit by cutting the pay of stars, saying “the sums don’t add up”.

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Kevin Whately has signed the letter (Ian West/PA)

Age UK says it has received around 36,000 letters, which will also be delivered to Conservative HQ, asking leadership hopefuls Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson to reconsider the Government’s decision to hand responsibility for the funding to the BBC.

Charity director Caroline Abrahams said: “I think many older people will be hugely cheered to see these household names supporting their cause and they will be hoping, as we do in Age UK, that our new prime minister listens and takes back responsibility for funding free TV licences for over-75s – whether it’s Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt.

“The Government should never have outsourced this welfare entitlement in the first place but the new administration that is about to come into place at least has the opportunity to wipe the slate clean and right the wrong that’s been done to our older population.”

The charity says that 83% people polled want the Government to stick to the Conservative manifesto promise to fund free TV licences for over-75s and its online petition has reached more than 600,000 signatures.

The free TV licence was introduced in 2000, but the BBC agreed to take on the cost as part of the charter agreement hammered out in 2015.

Sir David and the BBC’s director general Lord Tony Hall will be joined by other senior executives to give evidence on TV licences for over-75s, as well as its recent annual report, later today.

A Government spokesman said: “We’re very disappointed with this decision – we’ve been clear that we want and expect the BBC to continue this concession.

“People across the country value television as a way to stay connected, and we want the BBC to look at further ways to support older people.

“Taxpayers want to see the BBC using its substantial licence fee income in an appropriate way to ensure it delivers for UK audiences, which includes showing restraint on salaries for senior staff.”

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