The BBC has said the free television licence for all over-75s will end from next month, arguing the alternative would mean big cuts to the broadcaster’s programming.
Retirees not on pension credit will have to pay the full £154.50 annual fee from August 1. The levy, which raised £3.7bn for the BBC in 2018-19, accounts for about three-quarters of the corporation’s revenues.
The BBC announced last year it would scrap the free TV licence following a review triggered by the Conservative government’s decision in 2015 to hand responsibility to the public service broadcaster for the subsidy, which is estimated to cost £745m a year.
The change was part of a funding settlement that allowed the licence fee to rise by inflation and ended almost two decades of state funding for free TV licences for the over-75s.
Downing Street hit out at the BBC and said it had made “the wrong decision”, adding: “We recognise the value of free TV licences for over-75s and believe that they should be funded by the BBC.”
In October last year, the digital, culture, media and sport committee criticised the government for a “flawed process” that “bounced” the BBC into accepting responsibility for the subsidy in 2015. It urged the government and the corporation to reach a new agreement to save the free TV licence.
The scrapping of the free licence was originally planned for June 1 but that was delayed as the coronavirus pandemic hit. David Clementi, BBC chairman, said the decision to end the free licences had “not been easy”, but any further delay would start to hit programmes and services.
He said that around 1.5m households were still eligible for free TV licences, adding that 450,000 had already applied.
“Critically it is not the BBC making that judgment about poverty,” Sir David said in a statement. “It is the government who sets and controls that measure.”
He said the broadcaster was under “severe financial pressure” because of the pandemic adding: “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.”
Free licences for over-75s were introduced in 2001 by the then Labour government. However, as part of the 2015 licence fee and charter negotiation, the BBC agreed to take responsibility for any future scheme and its funding from 2020.
The UK’s largest charity for the elderly, Age UK, called on the “BBC and the government to sit down and agree a way forward”. They have previously blamed the government rather than the broadcaster for the changes.
During the general election campaign, Boris Johnson fired a warning shot at the BBC about its future funding after questioning the long-term viability of the licence fee.
The prime minister said in December that he was “certainly looking at” whether the national broadcaster should be funded by the public purse.
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