The BBC has come under fire after announcing that, from June 2020, the free TV licence concession to over-75s will be available only to households where someone receives Pension Credit. Speaking on BBC Question Time on Thursday night, presenter Fiona Bruce hosted a debate on the controversial decision. The BBC host began the debate by clarifying: “I should say that the BBC is saying that free licences for over 75s would mean the closure of BBC2, BBC4, the BBC News channel, BBC Scotland channel, Radio 5 Live and some local radio stations. That’s what it would cost the BBC.”
Panel member and Tory MP Theresa Villiers said: “I think the BBC should think again about this. I think we must find a way to continue the free licence for the over-75s.”
Ms Bruce questioned: “And do you think the Government bears any sort of responsibility?”
The MP for Chipping Barnet replied: “I think the Government has a part to play here, the settlement with the BBC was based on the undertaking by the BBC that they would take this over, that they would continue it.
“But I do recognise there are financial implications for the BBC, I am the biggest fan of the BBC but they have got this thing wrong.
“I think there is an awkward contrast with the very significant amount of money they spend not just on presenters’ salaries but also there are 100 or so people behind the camera who are paid more than the Prime Minister.
“There are ways in which the BBC can help fund this, but yes I would certainly encourage the Government to play a part in this as well and resolve this problem.
“Because I think it’s just not acceptable if this benefit for the over-75s is withdrawn.”
Ms Bruce then moved on by asking an audience member for their opinion on the issue.
As part of the charter agreement which came into effect in 2017, the BBC planned to take on the burden of paying for free licences by June 2020.
From that date, following a review by the broadcaster, only households with someone over the age of 75 who receives Pension Credit will be eligible for a free TV licence funded by the BBC.
It is thought that around 3.7 million pensioners will lose out. The new scheme will cost the BBC around £250 million by 2021/22, depending on the take-up.
Ex-Commons leader Andrea Leadsom told the Press Association: “I think that’s unacceptable. It’s a commitment in the Conservatives’ manifesto and we need to find a way to reverse that.”
Former Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey said she will back a campaign by ITV’s Good Morning Britain asking the BBC to reverse its decision.
She wrote on Twitter: “As someone who used to work for the BBC I am ashamed of them for this decision.
“Our ‘public service broadcaster’ who has forgotten the public they are supposed to serve. Agree with @RuthDavidsonMSP & @GMB campaign.”
Labour has launched a campaign to restore free TV licences for all over-75s, describing the move as “an act of cruelty”. Leader Jeremy Corbyn wrote on Twitter: “Pensioners have spent their lives contributing to our society. Providing over-75s with free TV licences is not too much to ask. Sign the petition if you agree.”
Over 450,000 people have signed an Age UK petition opposing the move, at the time of writing.
The free licence fee was first paid for by a Labour government in 2000. Under the Conservatives in 2015, ministers announced that an agreement had been reached between the Government and the BBC, and the broadcaster would shoulder the cost.