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Sat, 15 August 2020

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The BBC must reinstate free TV licences for over 75s

The BBC must reinstate free TV licences for over 75s
4 min read

The BBC receives over £5bn in income. It must learn to manage its money and reverse the disgraceful scrapping of free TV licences for the over-75s, writes Peter Heaton-Jones

I love the BBC. I worked there for twenty years, on and off, and was immensely proud to do so. I am not, and will never be, a Tory Beeb Basher.

But the BBC has one major problem: a lack of accountability and a deafness to criticism which, to be blunt, borders on arrogance. This was on display in full high definition last week, when the Corporation announced its decision to stop giving free TV licences to everyone over the age of 75. From next year, only households where somebody receives Pension Credit will be eligible.

The BBC had agreed to take responsibility for the over-75s’ licences as part of the last funding settlement with the government. Under that deal, the BBC gets a guaranteed increase in the licence fee every year. That adds up to more than £4bn from us, the taxpayers. It’s a copper-bottomed, gold-plated income which any commercial organisation can only dream of. BBC executives grabbed the deal with both hands. Their side of the bargain? Assume responsibility for the over-75s’ free TV licences. Fine, they said, where do we sign?

Four years later, and the BBC’s total income is more than £5bn. Yet now it says it can’t afford to keep paying for the concession after all. It’ll still take the guaranteed increases in the licence fee, thanks very much, but will remove the free licences from 3.5m pensioners.

This is a disgraceful decision. The BBC receives this windfall of cash but fails to live within its means. If it were a commercial organisation – which it shouldn’t be – its financial management would be far more competent, accountable and efficient.

I know, from having worked there, that the BBC indulges in profligacy on a scale that wouldn’t ever be allowed in the private sector. Whole floors of managers are paid more than the Prime Minister. Building projects go way over budget. Hotels and taxis are booked on an industrial scale, and some are never used. And the stars’ salaries – well, let’s not go there, although publishing those is actually a smokescreen which the BBC exploits. While the Daily Mail is fuming about how much Claudia Winkleman is paid, it’s not looking at where the real wastefulness lies: in the darkest recesses of this management-heavy monolith.

The BBC carried out a consultation about over-75s’ licences. It was designed in such a way as to produce the required results, but even then, the PR department had to perform some serious statistical gymnastics to try and justify the outcome. The exercise was overlain with scaremongering about the scale of cuts that would supposedly be necessary unless the BBC got its way. Whole swathes of channels and stations would apparently need to be scythed. Nonsense. This was manipulative, diversionary and self-serving.

I have raised this issue in Parliament several times already, and will do so again. The BBC must be held to account for the way it spends our money. I urge the BBC and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport – yes, I don’t deny the government has a role – to get together and sort this out. But in the final analysis, the BBC agreed to take on this responsibility in return for a guaranteed tsunami of taxpayers’ cash. It cannot now seek to squirm out of the deal, pleading poverty.

I’ve spewed out numerous speeches and articles over the years, all in support of the BBC. I’ve praised its staff (and ex-staff) for being creative and hard-working. I’ve argued for the retention of the licence fee, because commercialisation would spell the death of the public service broadcaster as we know it. I’ve even called it the best broadcaster in the world. I stand by all of that.

I do still love the BBC. But this is an unacceptable decision, and it cannot be the end of the episode.

Peter Heaton-Jones is Conservative MP for North Devon