The election hasn’t even officially begun yet (parliament doesn’t dissolve until Wednesday), but the first big issue of the campaign has already emerged – free TV licences for over-75s.
Earlier this year, the BBC revealed that from June 2020 – when it will become responsible for implementing the licence fee – free TV licences will only be available for over-75s who receive pension credits, a kind of benefit for OAPs with a low income.
Estimates suggest that more than three million households will lose out under the new rule.
On Sunday, it was reported that – with a general election less than six weeks away – Boris Johnson has demanded urgent talks with BBC chiefs to thrash out a funding solution for the £745m-a-year perk before it ends next year.
The PM told The Sun on Sunday: “This needs sorting out urgently and I’ll be talking to the BBC about how to sort that out.”
Reacting to the news, Tory MP Robert Halfon tweeted: “Since the BBC’s despicable decision to scrap blanket free TV licences for over-75s, I have campaigned to ensure that it doesn’t come into practice.
“I strongly welcome this,” he added, attaching a photo of the article.
Halfon’s tweet has since been re-tweeted by Maria Caulfield, Tim Laughton, Kevin Foster and Eddie Hughes – Conservative politicians all seeking re-election in December.
But the message also sparked a *lot* of critical responses.
“It was the Conservative government who cut this, not the BBC. But you already know that don’t you?,” one user responded. “Ignorant or dishonest?” another asked.
So, with free TV licences becoming a central issue of the election, which side of the argument is right?
Why Is It Up To The BBC Who Gets A Free TV Licence?
The £154.50 TV licence fee – which helps pay for the creation of BBC programmes and services – has been free for all over-75s since 2000, when Tony Blair’s Labour government vowed to cover the cost.
Since then, the scheme – which currently costs £745m-a-year – has been the government’s responsibility.
But, as part of a charter agreement hammered out between the broadcaster and the government in 2015, it was agreed that the BBC would take on responsibility for funding the free licences from 2020 – a highly-controversial change.
“The BBC has agreed to take on responsibility for funding free TV licences for the over 75s and in return we were able to give our valued public broadcaster a sustainable income for the long term,” then-chancellor George Osborne announced during his 2015 summer Budget, selling the move as a welfare-saving exercise amid a raft of austerity policies.
The decision immediately sparked anger, with former BBC Trust chair Diane Coyle accusing the government of having “forced a deal” on the BBC. Meanwhile, the BBC itself said it was “the right deal... in difficult economic circumstances”.
Since then, the BBC’s director-general Lord Tony Hall has insisted that the broadcaster took on the policy “unwillingly”, with the cost of the licence fee programme equalling around a fifth of the entire BBC budget– or the amount it spends on all of BBC Two, BBC Three, BBC Four, the BBC News channel, CBBC and CBeebies.
It was “made absolutely clear” the BBC had “no option” but to accept the deal,” Hall told MPs in July.
“This was coming to us whether we wanted it or not,” he added.
What Are The BBC’s Current Plans For The Licence Fee?
Over the summer, the BBC announced that it would restrict free TV licences to over-75s receiving pension credits from June 2020.
This was the “leading reform option”, said BBC chairman David Clementi at the time.
“It protects the poorest over-75s, while protecting the services that they, and all audiences, love.
“It is the fairest and best outcome. It is one we can implement and endorse. This is an outcome that is the fairest possible in difficult circumstances.”
The new scheme will see the number of households given a free TV licence drop from 4.5 million to 1.5 million. Meanwhile, it will cost the BBC around £250m-a-year – an annual saving of £500m.
Age UK has called on the government to reinstate the licence, delivering a petition to Downing Street signed by more than 600,000 people.
“For over a million of our oldest citizens the TV is their constant companion and window on the world,” the charity said in a statement. “And now it’s under threat.
“We believe it’s the government’s responsibility to look after older people, not the BBC’s.”
What Does The Government Have To Say About The Whole Thing?
When the news was announced in June, the government said it was “very disappointed” with the BBC’s decision – and insisted that it wanted the Beeb to continue covering the free TV licences.
“We have been clear that we expected the BBC to continue this concession,” Theresa May’s spokesman said. “We want the BBC to look again at ways of supporting older people.”
Since then, prime minister Boris Johnson has continued to argue that the BBC should fund the free TV licences, telling MPs the government “will continue to make the argument very vigorously” with the broadcaster.
Ministers will “put the screws on the BBC”, he said.
What Have Labour Said About The Row?
Unsurprisingly, the Labour Party has also blamed the Conservatives for millions of people losing out on a free TV licence.
“The Tory decision to scrap free TV licences for over-75s is utterly callous,” Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson tweeted. “From next year 3.7 million older people will lose their free TV licence.
“It’s disgraceful. Our message is clear – vote Labour to save free TV licences.”