COMMENT: The free TV licences campaign needs more thought

TheRE has been growing unease about the increasing number of universal benefits available in Scotland for some time now. Everyone agrees that the winter fuel allowance, free TV licences for those aged 75 and over, free school meals, free prescriptions and tuition fees are extremely valuable benefits. For many people, not having to pay for some of these basics means they have a wee bit of money to spend on other things which they wouldn't otherwise be able to afford. This makes a huge difference to the quality of life of millions of retired people who have relatively meagre pensions.

The question that keeps coming back, especially in these days of public spending “austerity”, is one of fairness. Why should taxpayers be forking out for TV licences and prescriptions for wealthy retirees? It is a particularly difficult question to answer at a time when we are making cut backs in schools and to social care.

The backlash against what has been described as a free-for-all culture has been growing this week. Firstly, the Scottish government’s poverty advisor, Naomi Eisenstadt, railed against it, suggesting that public money has to be better targeted at those who need it most. And now the BBC is asking stars like Helen Mirren and Terry Wogan to front a campaign asking the over-75s who can afford to do so to reject their free TV licence and keep paying the fee.

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Government officials will tell you that universal benefits often cost no more than targeted ones because the latter are so expensive to administer. But it will never sit easily with many who are well-off that they are being given so much for free when others in greater need are doing without.

There is a danger, though, which has been identified in the BBC campaign. Many older people to whom these benefits will make a huge difference are often reluctant to apply for them in the first place.

Charities are warning about this risk and many people will have personal experience of having a devil of a job persuading their parents or other relatives that they should claim something to which they were perfectly entitled.

It would be very sad if this well-intentioned campaign made any older people who rely on these benefits feel guilty about applying for them. This campaign needs some further thought.

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