More than half a million older people with dementia could be forced to pay for their TV licences from next year, according to research commissioned by Labour, findings the party said were “a national scandal”.
Tom Watson, the shadow culture secretary, who has pushed for the government to maintain funding for free TV licences for those aged 75 or over, said the process of applying for a licence could be particularly difficult for those with dementia.
The Alzheimer’s Society called for more work to communicate the changes, saying television could be “a lifeline” for isolated older people.
The free licences were introduced by Labour in 1999, with the cost funded by government. In 2015, the Conservatives said they would phase this out by 2020, and that the BBC should take on the financial burden of £745m a year.
But the corporation argued this sum, a fifth of its annual budget, would require wholesale channel closures to reduce costs. Instead, from next June, it will make all those aged 75 or over pay the £154.50 annual fee, apart from those who can show they claim the means-tested pension credit.
Research commissioned by Labour from the House of Commons library estimated that more than 552,000 older people with dementia could thus lose their free TV licences, including more than 140,000 aged 90 or over.
The total of those living with dementia affected by the change was reached by combining official population estimates with the prevalence of dementia by age group, reaching a total of 682,000. Of these, 19% on average received pension credit and are thus still eligible for a free licence.
Watson said: “It is a national scandal that over half a million older people living with dementia could have their free TV licences scrapped next year, despite a Tory manifesto promise that free licences would be protected.
“The process of applying and paying for a TV licence will be very difficult to many older people, and especially so for those living with dementia.
“This is a tragedy in the making for some of the vulnerable people in our communities. The prime minister should rethink his position and save free TV licences today.”
Gavin Terry, head of policy at the Alzheimer’s Society, said: “We know from speaking to people affected by dementia that a TV can be a lifeline for many people who struggle to get out.
“It’s vital that this change to TV licensing is rolled out in a way that is easy to access and understand for people with dementia and their carers, so they aren’t in the dark and can continue to remain connected to the community.
“Alzheimer’s Society is committed to preventing isolation of people with dementia, so we’re encouraging the BBC to communicate all options available to anyone affected, including pension credit. And we’d urge the BBC to work directly with people with dementia and voluntary organisations supporting them to help ensure everyone can stay tuned in.”
A spokesman for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said: “We’re disappointed with the BBC’s decision not to continue free licences for the over-75s. We’ve been clear that we want and expect it to continue this concession.
“We want every person with dementia, and their carers and families, to receive high-quality and compassionate care, and since 2012 have spent £433m to accelerate progress in early detection, improved treatment, prevention and care.”