BBC may have to pay for pensioners' free TV licences
With fewer than 48 hours to go, details of the Spending Review are far from settled and the BBC could be a victim.
I understand from both government and BBC sources that one decision still being actively considered by ministers is to transfer the £556m annual cost of providing free TV licences to pensioners over 75-years-old, from the government's books to the BBC.
This would take effect from the time of the next licence fee settlement, due in 2012.
The level of the TV licence would be increased as a result, but probably by no means enough to make up for the full £556m cost.
I understand that ministers have already rejected an earlier similar plan to transfer the cost of the BBC World Service from the Foreign Office to the BBC.
This is potentially a very big story indeed, and could lead to a big bust-up between the BBC and ministers over the BBC's independence.
The cost of providing free TV licences is currently £556m a year, and with our ageing population that cost is rising rapidly. The bill is currently met by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), so taking more than half a billion pounds off the books will be a quite saving for them, and may mean they can avoid cutting some benefit or other.
The effects for the BBC are quite serious. If the whole £556m cost is to be met by the current licence fee, which brought the BBC £3.45bn in 2009-10, it would be the equivalent of a 16% cut in the BBC's licence fee income.
I would be astonished if the BBC Trust took this measure lying down. I would expect them to fight it tooth and nail. The BBC will no doubt argue it's wrong for the licence fee to be used to pay for a welfare benefit, and a severe erosion of BBC independence.
A BBC Trust spokesman told me tonight:
"Anything at this stage is speculation as we have yet to see the detail of the comprehensive Spending Review. That said, it would be unacceptable for licence fee payers to pick up the bill for what is a DWP universal benefit."
This will be very awkward for the BBC politically. What is more popular - high salaries for BBC stars and senior execitives, or free TV licences for the elderly?