BBC must ‘realise its mistake’ and reinstate free licence fee for over-75s, say MPs

Tony DiverWed, 17 February 2021, 7:00 pm

The corporation has told the over-75s they will not be prosecuted for watching television without a licence - for now - HENRY NICHOLLS/REUTERS
The corporation has told the over-75s they will not be prosecuted for watching television without a licence – for now – HENRY NICHOLLS/REUTERS

The BBC must “realise its mistake” and scrap the licence fee for the over-75s, MPs have said, after the corporation announced an amnesty for the elderly for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic.

Tory backbenchers said the BBC was in danger of becoming more unpopular with voters if it restarted charges for the over-75s once the pandemic is over.

The free pass for the elderly was scrapped in August last year, and the corporation warned over-75s they would have to buy one or face prosecution.

Around one in seven have still not bought a licence, but the BBC has announced an amnesty for the elderly during the pandemic.

Pensioners were told they are “still legally covered” if they have not yet purchased one.

“In light of ongoing challenges to many of our customers caused by the coronavirus, we’re giving older people a bit more time to make arrangements for their next licence,” a spokesman said.

“We’re writing to customers to reassure them of this.”

A representative said the decision was not an amnesty but “giving people time to get safely set up”.

MPs said it gave an ideal opportunity for the broadcaster to reverse its position altogether and bring back the free licences.

Peter Bone, Tory MP for Wellingborough, said: “There is supposed to be change going on at the BBC, and I haven’t seen it.

“One of the things they could do is say ‘we’ve got this wrong, we’ve made a mistake, and we’re not going to charge people over the age of 75 for a licence fee’.

“This is a good time to scrap it. In the middle of this terrible Covid pandemic, this would be a very sensible thing.

“It is really a challenge to the BBC, of whether they are in the real world or completely out of touch in their BBC bunker.”

Robert Halfon, who has previously campaigned for the licence fee to come with a vote on the BBC’s leadership, said: “I certainly think they shouldn’t be making criminals out of pensioners who can’t afford to pay their licence fee.”

The BBC and Government blamed each other for the decision to scrap the free licences, with the corporation arguing that it had little choice to end the scheme after ministers refused to pay for it.

Sir David Clementi, the BBC’s Chairman, said the decision had “not been easy”, but stressed that 1.5 million over-75s can still claim the free pass if they collect Pension Credit.

Other MPs have called for the licence fee to be scrapped altogether.

Tom Hunt, the Tory member for Ipswich, said: “I regret the decision they made for television licences not to continue to be free for that age group.

“I’m glad that they’re not continuing to prosecute and threaten people in that way, but I’m not a supporter of the licence fee and I think we should get rid of it.

“I don’t think we should be forced to pay for the BBC, if that is something we want to do then we can, but they have demonstrated over the last decade or so that they have failed on many occasions to be an impartial broadcaster.”

A BBC spokeswoman said: “The Government withdrew the universal free TV licence for over 75s, not the BBC. We ensured free licences for the most vulnerable, those on Pension Credit, which are paid for by us.

“There is no amnesty, nor new policy, we have simply said we’re giving people time to safely get set up. Since August the majority of over 75s have successfully transitioned to new paid or free licences without an issue.”