Coronavirus: BBC delays over-75 TV licence fee changes

Two pensioners watching TVImage source, Getty Images

The BBC is to delay TV licence fee changes for the over-75s until August in light of the coronavirus situation.

Free TV licences for up to 3.7 million people had been due to be scrapped on 1 June, but that has been put back to 1 August.

These are "exceptional circumstances" and "now is not the right time", BBC chairman Sir David Clementi said.

He added: "We are fully focused on delivering our services to the public at this difficult time."

The BBC confirmed it will foot the cost of the two-month delay.

Last year, the corporation announced that only low-income households where one person receives the pension credit benefit will still be eligible for a free licence from June 2020.

On Monday, amid the growing spread of the coronavirus, the BBC and the government issued a joint statement saying they "do not want anyone to be worried about any potential change" at the current time.

"The BBC's priority over the coming period will be to do everything we can to serve the nation at this uniquely challenging time," the statement said.

Image source, PA Media

"As the national broadcaster, the BBC has a vital role to play in supplying information to the public in the weeks and months ahead."

"Recognising the exceptional circumstances, the BBC board has therefore decided to change the start date of the new policy. Our current plan is to now bring it into place on 1 August. We will of course keep the issue under review as the situation continues to evolve."

Free TV licences for the over-75s have been provided by the government since 2000, but responsibility for the provision is being passed to the BBC as part of its last licence fee settlement.

There was an outcry in 2019 when the broadcaster announced it would end the scheme for all but those receiving the pension credit benefit.

More than 630,000 people signed a petition set up by the charity Age UK, which called on the prime minister to take action.

On Monday, Age UK welcomed the delay as "a victory for common sense", but questioned whether an eight-week delay "will be anything like long enough".

Charity director Caroline Abrahams said: "Unfortunately many over-75s will have already received a letter suggesting they get their pension credit letters photocopied at the local library or corner shop.

"This runs counter to the public health message the government seems likely to be giving older people very soon about staying at home to reduce their risk of infection, so it's important older people are informed that there's no need for them to take this action for now."

'Welcome news'

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said: "I am pleased the BBC has worked with us and agreed to delay their licence fee changes for over-75s from coming in and will keep this under review.

"It will be welcome news to millions of older people who now don't need to worry about their TV licence during this challenging period.

"It is right that the BBC have recognised the exceptional circumstances posed by the coronavirus outbreak and the need for the whole country to pull together in the national effort."

A 2018 report estimated that continuing to providing free licences for the 2020/2021 financial year would cost the BBC around £700m.

The DCMS Committee chair Julian Knight said: "We welcome this news at what will be a time of great anxiety, particularly for those over 75. Television and radio broadcasts will offer comfort as well as being a vital means for accessing public information.

"However, this delay seems to offer a short-term fix to a much wider problem. What we want is to see is renewed efforts from the Government and the BBC to sit down and resolve this issue once and for all."