BBC scraps free TV licences for over-75s unless they receive pension credit

Corporation feared ‘very profound impact’ of maintaining the perk, says director-general

Jon Sharman
Monday 10 June 2019 15:11 BST
David Clementi on the BBC's decision to scrap blanket free licences for over 75s

The BBC is to scrap free TV licences for people over the age of 75 who do not receive pension credit, it has been announced.

Some 1.5 million households that include someone over 75 claiming the benefit may still be eligible for a free licence.

It means that up to 3.7 million pensioners will have to begin paying from June 2020.

That was when the BBC was due to take over responsibility for funding the free licences from the government, which had paid for the perk since it was introduced by New Labour in 2001.

In its 2017 election manifesto, the Conservative Party promised to maintain pensioner benefits.

The BBC’s director-general, Tony Hall, said: “It would not be right simply to abolish all free licences.

“Equally it would not be right to maintain it in perpetuity given the very profound impact that would have on many BBC services.

“This decision is fairest for the poorest pensioners. It protects those most in need. And importantly, it is not the BBC making that judgement about poverty. It is the government who sets and controls that measure.

“We also need to look at how the level of the licence fee is set in the future. The last two settlements have been made in the dark and without proper consultation.

“It is vital that future decisions are evidence-based and made after proper consultation and scrutiny. We need to find a better way.”

Funding the full free licence scheme would have cost the BBC some £750m a year, or about one-fifth of its budget, the corporation said.

“We expect this would mean the closures of BBC Two, BBC Four, the BBC News channel, the BBC Scotland channel, Radio 5 Live, and a number of local radio stations, as well as other cuts and reductions,” it said in a statement.

The decision followed a consultation of 190,000 people.

A government spokesperson said: “We’re very disappointed with this decision – we’ve been clear that we want and expect the BBC to continue this concession.

“People across the country value television as a way to stay connected, and we want the BBC to look at further ways to support older people.

“Taxpayers want to see the BBC using its substantial licence fee income in an appropriate way to ensure it delivers for UK audiences, which includes showing restraint on salaries for senior staff.”

Labour’s Tom Watson called on the Tories vying to succeed Theresa May as leader to “honour the commitment they made in 2017”.

“You cannot means test for social isolation. You cannot means test for loneliness,” the deputy opposition leader, and shadow culture secretary, added.

Hannah Bardell, the SNP culture spokesperson, said the decision was “daylight robbery”. She tweeted: “Predicating the free TV licence on pension credit which has already been cut is a deeply damaging & cynical act of betrayal.”

Jan Shortt, general secretary of campaign group the National Pensioners Convention, warned that pension credit was “massively under-claimed”, meaning some of the poorest older people will wrongly miss out on free TV.

A government report published in autumn last year estimated that up to 1.3 million families who were entitled to claim the benefit did not do so.

In a tweet, the charity Age UK said: “[This] decision will cause many older people huge anxiety and distress. But this is the government’s fault, not the BBC’s. It is open to a new prime minister to intervene.”

TV Licensing, the body responsible for collection and enforcement of the television licence, said it will contact every customer currently in receipt of a free over-75s licence to explain what steps they would need to take next.

It said everyone currently eligible for the scheme would remain covered by a free licence until 31 May 2020.

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