DUP representatives said they could no longer back their own motion condemning the scrapping of free TV licences for over 75s due to an amendment supporting pensioners who refuse to pay it in protest.
DUP Alderman Maurice Devenney had proposed at the recent Full Council meeting that the Council write to the BBC to request that they overturn their decision to scrap the free TV licence for up to 3.7million older people across the UK.
“My information is that this will affect 70,000 to 80,000 people her in Northern Ireland,” Ald. Devenney said. “This is something we must condemn and ask for it to be scrapped, because many of our senior citizens are very vulnerable people, some of them aren’t that financially well off and some of them live on their own, and really this is the only view they have to the outside world - switching on their television, and there are a lot of ones who won’t be able to pay this fee.”
Sinn Fein Colr. Ruari McHugh said his party saw this as “yet another example of an attack on some of the most vulnerable people due to the Tory austerity agenda”.
Colr. McHugh said exemptions would not extend to many pensioners who had “scrimped and saved” during their lives and as a result were over the pension credit threshold. He also said it was ironic the DUP was bringing such a motion while propping up the Conservative Party through their confidence and supply agreement.
People Before Profit Councillor Shaun Harkin described the scrapping of free TV licences as “an absolute outrage” at a time when “pensioner poverty is going up, isolation is a real issue”, and warned that it could set a precedent.
He proposed the original motion be amended to include recognition that the Tory government and its partners bore the ultimate responsibility for this attack on pensioners, and proposed that Council stands in full solidarity with the ongoing protests and “in solidarity with all pensioners who refuse to pay the fee in protest”.
SDLP Colr. John Boyle said the plans could impact thousands of people across the city and district, and said: “It should not be left up to a public service broadcaster to assess a person’s ability to pay. They shouldn’t be looking into who is in receipt of pension credit. This is a nonsense and a very dangerous nonsense.”
“Loneliness,” he added, “is an increasing issue for many people and it is roughly estimated that 40 per cent of the population in the UK said the television was their main source of company, and that’s not just pensioners.”
Colr. Boyle proposed a further amendment which included that the Council write to UK Minister Jeremy Wright to outline its opposition to the imposition of such a move upon local people here.
After Councillors voted by majority to back Colr. Harkin’s amendment, the DUP withdrew support, with DUP Alderman Ryan McCready stating: “The point I take issue with is the one where we are going to stand in solidarity with people who break the law. Me, as a man of principal, and that is my pledge to the electorate, would we stand in solidarity with people who don’t pay their car tax and break other laws? Albeit it doesn’t say it specifically, it certainly flirts or gives the impression or inference that this Council supports people breaking the law.”
UUP Colr. Darren Guy added: “As a point of order, is it appropriate for us as a Council to support the breaking of the law?”
Colr. Harkin responded: “‘Unjust laws are there to be broken’, as Martin Luther King said, and this would be one of those.”
Colr. Boyle’s amendment was also passed, with 27 voting for, three DUP Aldermen present voting against and three Councillors abstaining.
UUP Alderman Derek Hussey then proposed a further amendment which involved removing or altering the paragraph DUP and UUP representatives had taken issue with, but was told that amendments could only add and not subtract from what had already been voted in favour of, after which he withdrew his proposed amendment.
The overall motion as proposed by Alderman Devenney and amended by Colrs. Harkin and Boyle was passed, with 27 voting in favour and five abstentions.
Ald. Devenney said he had brought the motion in good heart. He said he understood parties had different politics, but said he was “really, really shocked” the Council was now almost supporting people not paying their TV licences.