Imagine for a second the BBC taking a frail, housebound, elderly pensioner to court for not possessing a TV licence that for years she has had for free. Then imagine fining her £1,000 – the standard penalty – with legal costs on top; and if she doesn’t pay or can’t pay, sending her to prison.
Unthinkable? In fact, one in every 10 court cases is over non-payment of TV licences. And from next year, millions of people aged over 75 could lose their right to a free TV licence – and, if they don’t pay up, end up being taken to court despite a Conservative election promise they would not have to pay.
Just to means-test pensioners for their eligibility for free licences raises civil liberties issues. The Department for Work and Pensions would almost certainly have to open up its records to allow BBC officials to access private information on the finances of the over-75s. It would cost £72m simply to administer the system.
But there are other very good reasons why the pensioners’ free TV licence should not be abolished. A policy of “taxation without representation” sparked the US war of independence in the 1770s. Since then the convention has been that taxation can be imposed only by the elected representatives of the people.
But if the BBC – an unelected body – becomes the taxing authority, it will decide who is to be taxed for the licence fee, and at what rate.
For the BBC to now make judgments that only parliament should make about the distribution of income between social groups is indeed taxation without representation.
The BBC’s argument is that its budgets are stretched to the limit and that it has no alternative but to recoup as much of the £800m that the over-75 concession costs. To make its case, it claims BBC finances have been cut back to the bone. So it’s an irony that a few days ago the BBC’s top brass announced they would award themselves bonuses of up to £75,000 – giving some of them 30% rises in a multi-million pound handout.
But there is a far more fundamental reason why pensioners should not pay. The Frontier Economics report – commissioned by the BBC to make its case – does not even acknowledge that pensioner poverty, which was halved between 1997 and 2010, is now on the rise again – from 1.6 million three years ago to 1.9 million now – and forecast to pass 2 million by 2022. In the BBC’s statements, there is a complacency about today’s pensioner poverty that I find distressing and alarming, especially when over‑75s are almost 50% more likely to be in poverty than the 65-75 age group. In fact, one in every four of the over-75s is eligible for pension credit because their income is so low. As the fee rises towards £160, and then £170, that poverty will become worse.
• Gordon Brown is the UN special envoy for global education and a former prime minister of the UK