Bring back free TV licences for over-75s, MPs demand
MPs have said ministers and BBC bosses must reach a deal to restore free TV licences for over-75s as they criticised “flawed” talks that led to a major funding row.
The sides have been at loggerheads in recent months following the broadcaster’s decision to axe the perk despite Theresa May having promised voters in 2017 that it would remain.
The BBC has argued however that it can no longer afford to cover the £154.50-a-year benefit for almost three million Brits, which former Chancellor George Osborne made it responsible for in 2015.
The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee said while the Government was wrong to “bounce” the broadcaster into footing the bill, the latter was at fault for putting itself in an “invidious” position.
In their report, MPs said it was “absurd” that the BBC had been handed responsibility for making decisions on welfare benefits, given the perk now only applies to those claiming pension credits.
However they said that it was “not sustainable” for the BBC to continue funding the pledge from 2015 and it was “disingenuous” for Government Ministers to assume they would.
The MPs also criticised the agreement for being reached “behind closed doors” and said 2021 licence fee negotiations must be conducted in a “wholly different way”.
“The next round of negotiations between the Government and the BBC, due to take place in 2021, should agree a funding formula that maintained the free over 75s licence fees,” they said.
DCMS committee chair Damian Collins said: “This is an invidious position for the BBC to put itself in. It agreed to fund a pensioner benefit that it couldn’t afford and as a result, false reassurances were given to the over 75s that their free licence fees would be maintained."
“The BBC finds itself here as the result of a deal done behind closed doors that allowed no transparency for licence fee payers.
"Detailed minutes which would have shone a light on the crucial decision making process are absent or incomplete which is a matter of great regret."
Mr Collins said he hoped the broadcaster's changed board structure "will ensure more transparency on important decisions made by the BBC in the future".
Chairman of the BBC, Sir David Clementi, said: “The Committee say that the Government’s process in 2015 was flawed and we agree with this; it was never a process the BBC would have chosen.
“That’s why there must be a different way of doing things in the future. In terms of the agreement itself, we are satisfied that it was properly discussed within the BBC and properly authorised.”
“We will continue to implement the decision we have taken - after extensive consultation – on over 75s licence fees with great care and responsibility.”
Shadow Culture Secretary Tom Watson said: “I'm very pleased to see the DCMS Select Committee calling for saving free TV licences for over-75s. The consensus is overwhelming: the Government must act now.
“The Government should never have foisted the responsibility for funding free TV licences onto the BBC in the first place. It was an act of political cowardice and now 3.7 million older people are set to lose out next year.
“The only option that treats over-75s with dignity is for this Tory Government to admit they got it wrong, and commit to funding free TV licences for over-75s today.”
A spokesperson at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport said: “The 2015 funding settlement was agreed with Parliament and the BBC, and the then Director General said it was ‘a strong deal for the BBC’ and provided ‘financial stability’.
“Taxpayers want to see the BBC using its substantial licence fee income in an appropriate way to ensure it delivers for UK audiences. We will respond to the Select Committee report in due course.”