Labour accuse ministers of ‘passing the buck’ as BBC says it will not extend free TV licences further in Covid-19 crisis
The BBC said it ‘could not continue delaying‘ the move to make the over-75s pay the free ‘without impacting on programmes and services’. (PA)
Labour has accused the Government of “betraying” older people after the BBC announced it will press ahead with ending free TV licences following a two-month reprieve for the coronavirus pandemic.
As ministers hit out at the broadcaster over the “deeply disappointing” move, Shadow Culture Secretary Jo Stevens accused the Government of “passing the buck”.
The BBC had originally intended to ask households to start paying the £157.50-a-year free from June 1, but deferred the change as the Covid-19 outbreak took hold.
The free licences had previously been funded by the Government.
But the broadcaster was asked to take on responsibility for them as part of its last licence fee settlement with ministers.
Ms 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.”
Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, said it was “bitterly disappointed” by the decision — which it branded “another kick in the teeth, during a terrible year” for the over-75s.
"Many older people on low incomes have told us that if they have to find £150 plus a year to pay for a licence then they will have to forego some other essential, or try to survive without TV at all,” she warned.
“We genuinely worry about the mental health of older people living on their own in this situation if they have to give up their cherished TV - for some it really is all they have and their main way of alleviating their chronic loneliness.”
And Ms Abrahams warned: "The BBC has taken this decision today but in reality the principal responsibility lies with the Government.
“Until a previous administration transferred these free licences to the Corporation under a tapering funding arrangement they had taken the form of a welfare benefit for a generation, and to have done that without any consultation left a really bad taste in the mouth.
“The Government cannot absolve itself of responsibility for the upset and distress being caused to many of our over-75s today, the poorest and most isolated above all. And the sadness is that these older people have already endured so much over the last few months.”
But that was rejected by culture minister Matt Warman, who told MPs in the Commons on Thursday: “The fact is that the BBC has had a generous licence fee settlement.
“And it is deeply disappointing that they have chosen to go down the path that they apparently are going down.
“I would, of course, hope that there is yet time to reconsider that because... television has been a vital comfort for many people in the last few months, and it is a vital part of our national economy as well.”
Downing Street said: "This is the wrong decision. We recognise the value of free TV licences for over-75s and believe they should be funded by the BBC."
Asked whether the Government would intervene to avoid the charge coming in, the Prime Minister’s spokesperson said: “It is the BBC which is reponsible for the administration of the over-75s concession, but we are clear this is the wrong decision. We believe the value of free TV licences for over-75s should be funded by the BBC."
They added: "It might be worth reflecting on the fact that when the current settlement was reached with the BBC, the then-director general said it was a 'strong deal' for the BBC and it provided 'financial stability for the BBC'."
Justifying the move on Thursday, BBC chairman David Clementi said the broadcaster “could not continue delaying the scheme without impacting on programmes and services”.
He added: “Around 1.5 million households could get free TV licences if someone is over 75 and receives Pension Credit, and 450,000 of them have already applied. And critically it is not the BBC making that judgement about poverty. It is the Government who sets and controls that measure.
“Like most organisations the BBC is under severe financial pressure due to the pandemic, yet we have continued to put the public first in all our decisions. 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.”