Labour has describes plans to end free TV licences for most over-75s a “betrayal” that could deprive people of an “invaluable source of company during the pandemic”.
The free TV licence for over-75s will be means-tested from August 1, the BBC said on Thursday.
The broadcaster agreed to take on responsibility for funding the scheme as part of the charter agreement hammered out with the government in 2015.
It was due to introduce means-testing at the start of last month, but it was delayed until August because of the coronavirus, PA Media reports.
Labour’s shadow culture secretary Jo 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.”
The BBC said in a statement that the new scheme would cost “around £250 million by 2021/22” and that it would mean the corporation had to “divert some spending on programmes and services”.
It said the continuation of the government scheme would have cost £745m, which would have “in practice” lead to closures of, it says, BBC Two, BBC Four, the BBC News Channel, BBC Scotland channel and Radio 5 Live, as well as a “number of local radio stations”.
BBC chairman Sir David Clementi said: “The decision to commence the new scheme in August has not been easy, but implementation of the new scheme will be Covid-19 safe. The BBC could not continue delaying the scheme without impacting on programmes and services.
“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 judgment 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.”