Entertainment & Arts

TV licences: BBC to go ahead with over-75s licence fee changes

Two pensioners watching TV Image copyright Getty Images

The BBC is to go ahead with a plan to end free TV licences for most over-75s, after a two-month delay because of the coronavirus pandemic.

That means more than three million households will be asked to start paying the £157.50 fee from 1 August.

Only those who receive the Pension Credit benefit will be exempt.

The BBC said the new scheme is "the fairest decision", but the government said it was "the wrong decision" and Age UK called it "a kick in the teeth".

Why has this decision been taken?

The controversial change was originally due to be made on 1 June, and the BBC said the delay had cost £35m a month.

The cost of continuing to provide free licences to all over-75s could have reached £1bn a year over time with an ageing population, according to the corporation.

BBC Chairman Sir David Clementi said the decision had "not been easy", but the broadcaster is under "under severe financial pressure" and a further delay would have had an impact on programmes.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Actor Ricky Tomlinson led a protest outside the BBC's MediaCity in Salford last June

The BBC has previously warned that making no changes would have led to "unprecedented closures" of services.

It has also previously said it must make an extra £125m savings this year as a result of the pandemic, including the cost of delaying the over-75s changes.

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

What has the reaction been?

The Age UK charity said it was "bitterly disappointed", describing the move as "a kick in the teeth for millions of over-75s who have had a torrid time during this crisis".

More than 630,000 people signed an Age UK petition when the BBC first announced the plan in 2019. The charity has now urged the BBC and the government to "urgently sit down and agree on a solution to keep TV licences free".

Age UK charity director Caroline Abrahams said many older people would either have to give up their TV, which is "more of a lifeline than ever", or other essential purchases.

"Everyone needs to understand that under the BBC's scheme many hundreds of thousands of the poorest pensioners will be facing a bill they will simply be unable to afford to pay," she said.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson's spokesman said the BBC had made the "wrong decision", and the government believes the licence fees in question "should be funded by the BBC".

Culture minister Matt Warman said the move was "deeply frustrating".

But Labour's 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."

Julian Knight MP, Conservative chairman of the House of Commons culture select committee, called the situation "a mess" and said the new regime would be "a body blow to millions of British pensioners".

Broadcaster and Labour peer Dame Joan Bakewell said some older people could and should pay - but there is a "suffering middle" who will struggle.

"The rich old have lots of savings and investments, and they can well afford it," she told BBC Radio 5 Live.

But she added: "Not enough will get it free. There are layers of people above the earning [level] that gets you the benefit who also should be allowed to have a free licence fee... It's the suffering middle who perhaps find life expensive but are not reduced to needing state benefits."

She added that she had hoped incoming director general Tim Davie could have brought "some original thinking" to find a better solution.

How will the new system work?

The BBC said there would be a "Covid-safe" payment system, meaning people can apply online, and there will be a dedicated phone line and support staff.

"No-one needs to take any immediate action, or leave their home, to claim for a free TV licence or pay for one," a statement said.

TV Licensing will write to all licence holders aged over 75 with clear guidance about how to pay, it said.

Almost 1.6 million people claim Pension Credit, according to the latest government figures. Of those, 450,000 have already applied for a free licence.

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