The BBC’s decision to end free TV licences for most over-75s, after a two-month delay because of the coronavirus outbreak, has sparked a row with the government.
Ministers urged the broadcaster to reconsider what Downing Street described as “the wrong decision”. But the BBC pointed out it was the government that decided to stop paying for the benefit, and Labour and the charity Age UK accused the government of betraying pensioners and trying to shift the blame on to the broadcaster.
The BBC’s chairman, Sir David Clementi, said it could no longer afford to waive the £157.50 annual fee for all over-75s without programmes and channels being cut. From 1 August, free licences will only be available to those on pension credit, he said.
The BBC had set out plans to means test the free licence for over-75s from June, but this was delayed because of the coronavirus crisis, at an estimated cost of £35m per month.
Clementi said: “The decision to commence the new scheme in August has not been easy. The BBC could not continue delaying the scheme without impacting on programmes and services.
“Around 1.5 million households could get free TV licences if someone is over 75 and receives pension credit, and 450,000 of them have already applied. And critically, it is not the BBC making that judgment about poverty. It is the government who sets and controls that measure.”
He also pointed out the challenging financial environment the BBC faced.
Clementi said: “Like most organisations, the BBC is under severe financial pressure due to the pandemic, yet we have continued to put the public first in all our decisions. I believe continuing to fund some free TV licences is the fairest decision for the public, as we will be supporting the poorest, oldest pensioners without impacting the programmes and services that all audiences love.”
The culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, said he felt “let down” by the BBC. Speaking at a Downing Street briefing he said: “We gave the settlement to the BBC back in 2015. They said that it was a good settlement. And I regret that they couldn’t find efficiency savings in order to avoid having to impose the licence fee on the over-75s in the way that they have set out.
“I feel let down that the BBC haven’t funded this. Our manifesto said that we thought that they, they should fund it. I’ve made that position clear to the BBC, and I’ve not changed my mind on that.”
The digital minister, Matt Warman, urged the BBC to think again. Speaking in the Commons, he said: “The BBC has had a generous licence fee settlement and it is deeply disappointing that they have chosen to go down the path that they apparently are going down. I would hope that there is yet time to reconsider that because … television has been a vital comfort for many people in the last few months and it is a vital part of our national economy as well.”
Boris Johnson’s spokesman said: “This is the wrong decision. We recognise the value of free TV licences for over-75s, and believe that they should be funded by the BBC.”
The spokesman declined to say whether the government would take any action to change the BBC’s action, saying only that No 10 disagreed with it.
The Conservative chair of parliament’s culture committee, Julian Knight, also criticised the BBC over the decision, describing it as “body blow” to millions of British pensioners.
He added: “I had hoped that the previous delay announced would lead to the government and BBC coming together in order to thrash out a fresh deal. However, that has clearly not happened.
“This mess is a result of a poor decision struck by the outgoing director general [Sir Tony Hall] and Britain’s pensioners are having to pick up the cost.”
The BBC agreed to take on responsibility for funding the scheme as part of the charter agreement hammered out with the government in 2015.
The pandemic has cost the BBC more than £125m in lost revenues and new costs. Funding free TV licences for all over-75s would have cost the BBC £745m by 2021-22, it said, which would have led to the closures of BBC Two, BBC Four, the BBC News channel, BBC Scotland channel and Radio 5 Live, as well as a “number of local radio stations”.
The shadow culture secretary, Jo Stevens, said: “The refusal of the government to fund this vital service after promising to do so is nothing short of betrayal.
“Many over-75s have spent months at home with TV providing an invaluable source of company during the pandemic. For the government to blame the BBC who are having to contend with huge cuts is simply passing the buck.”
Caroline Abrahams, the charity director at Age UK, also blamed the government: “The BBC has taken this decision today but in reality the principal responsibility lies with the government. Until a previous administration transferred these free licences to the corporation under a tapering funding arrangement, they had taken the form of a welfare benefit for a generation, and to have done that without any consultation left a really bad taste in the mouth.
“The government cannot absolve itself of responsibility for the upset and distress being caused to many of our over-75s today, the poorest and most isolated above all. And the sadness is that these older people have already endured so much over the last few months.
“The government needs to sit down with the BBC urgently to keep these TV licences for over-75s free.”