Don’t Ask

Partially as a result of my volunteering, I follow an Age UK news feed.

Last week, the UK’s BBC announced plans to scrap a concession, that there is no need to pay for the license if you are over 75. If you’re under, I think the rule is per-household (so if a household has 10 TVs at the same address, you only pay the fee once), but although this tax goes to the BBC, it covers any live streaming into your household, even, say, if you use the BBC’s iPlayer to watch live tv on your iPad. As the Internet has developed, however, the line has become blurry – while you need a license to watch anything being broadcast live, you don’t need one to watch YouTube videos, say, because they’re not live.

I mean, it is to all intents and purposes one of those indirect taxes which people are just conditioned to pay. Whenever the subject is raised, there are always calls for a rethink on this tax. I must admit I can see two sides to the issue – on the one hand, it seems a very old-fashioned way to fund a broadcaster, and even the BBC has introduced subscription-only feeds of some of its content, so it seems to be moving away from that model. On the other hand, it is handy not to have content directly controlled by advertisers. Of course, add to this mix the fact that the BBC seems quite wasteful – digital projects costing millions have been canned with no tangible results, well-known presenters have been paid in the millions for their services – and it all becomes quite murky indeed.

Anyway, to raise more money the BBC wants to scrap this concession. That’s the headline at least, although in the fine print, the plan is to keep the exemption for people on some benefit. So, I asked a question of this charity – how many people will this rule-change actually affect? How many over-75s are in receipt of this benefit, so will still not be required to pay?

Even within that question, there is grey area. It is accepted that many people who are eligible for the benefit, don’t actually claim it. But I thought that there, the Age charity might have estimates. I have heard it said that some old people are too proud to claim the benefit and wish to live life standing on their own two feet – that may be true, but I suspect they don’t come into this equation anyway, since they’ll presumably be paying their £150/year fee regardless – because the over-75s concession is, after all, a benefit. What, I suspect, people mean when they say “too proud” is “it’s easy to claim the concession currently because it is just a tick-box, but actually claiming the benefit is far more onerous”. Which is something I can understand, having navigated the minefield of disability benefits. But, maybe that hits the nail on the head? Maybe the real issue is that we need to make this benefit easier to claim?

So I asked for these numbers. My hope was for the Age charity to respond, but they didn’t. Instead about 20 other people did – some sensible answers but mostly negative in tone. I very much got the impression that I was being chided for daring to pose these questions. I mean, especially if somebody is campaigning for something, they should expect to be scrutinised. Even then, all I did was to scratch the surface.

One particularly offensive woman said that the numbers didn’t matter because the whole thing was a misogynistic plot (given that women tend to live longer and would therefore pay for more years, there’s a kind-of logic to that), and that being male, I came from a privileged background and couldn’t possibly empathise anyway. Her tone totally wound me up, so I introduced my disability and said that, yes, I felt very privileged. I don’t like to bring my disability into things because it really shouldn’t be relevant to all but a very small part of my life, but it can be useful in closing down an argument. People will happily come out with all sorts of insults when they assume you’re able-bodied, but they tend to shut up quite quickly when you say you’re disabled. And, when arguments like that are presented, I think they do immense harm to a cause because they changed my attitude from one of open-mindedness to one of hostility.

Ultimately my attempt to find out more was not particularly successful, I mean, the BBC have introduced this rule change so as to make money, so certainly some people will be affected, but how many? In principle I’ve got no problem with some 80yo millionaire having to cough up £150/year, and when people talk about this issue, I’m acutely aware that people like the queen (estimated wealth £500m) and Paul McCartney (estimated wealth $1.2bn) fall into this ategory, so there are some extremely wealthy over-75s indeed! Plenty of people said “the tax is a bad idea because it means I will have to pay more”, but as far as I am concerned, that’s not a good argument when we’re talking about taxation as a whole. It’s just self-interest.

This benefit does worry me, though…

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