The BBC has hired 800 agents to curb a growing revolt over the end of the over-75s licence fee, as it today prepares to send out millions of letters to affected households.
The public service broadcaster last week scrapped the free TV licence for pensioners, arguing that the freebie was costing the BBC £745m a year amid an already “tough period” during the pandemic.
More than 3m households have now been asked to start paying the £157.50 annual fee, with letters demanding payment due to arrive today.
But the BBC’s announcement that poorer households will still be eligible for the free licence has sparked bureaucratic mayhem, with the broadcaster U-turning on its demand for documentary proof of lower incomes.
The BBC will still pay the licence fee to single pensioners on a weekly income below £173.75 and couples on less than £265.20.
A 16-page letter and application form states that applicants should submit photocopies of documents from the Department for Work and Pensions or the Pension Service to prove that they are in receipt of pension credit.
The BBC said those without access to a photocopier can post bank statements instead, or provide an an over-the-phone “verbal declaration process”, after the demand for documentary proof sparked outcry.
A BBC spokesperson told City A.M. the 800 agents will be “specially trained staff working to support customers through the changes to the over-75s licence,” and that they will not make any house visits.
Pensioner groups have coordinated resistance to the move, urging all over-60s to cancel their TV licence direct debits in solidarity with over-75s.
Dennis Reed of Silver Voices, the community organisation behind the protest, vowed to slam down a “long attritional campaign” to force the BBC to reverse its ditch of the free TV licence.
“It defies belief that, as a second wave of coronavirus marches over the horizon, the BBC are doing this. It shows a lack of compassion, a lack of empathy, a lack of understanding,” said Silver Voices.
Labour’s shadow culture minister Christian Matheson said pensioners will be “forced to choose between eating and watching TV”.
“The BBC is cutting jobs and content to pay for the cost of the licence dumped on them by the government. And pensioners are forced to choose between eating and watching TV,” said Matheson.
The National Pensioners Convention echoed those concerns, adding that over-75s whose income is just above the pension credit threshold will be hardest hit.
“They will have to buy less food and not put the heating on to afford a licence,” it said.
The announcement that the BBC has hired 800 agents to deal with those not paying the licence also stoked anger, after the broadcaster announced a wave of redundancies in recent weeks.
Last month, the BBC said it will slash 970 jobs across its regional and news departments, as part of plans to shore up an extra £25m by 2022.
The publicly-funded broadcaster had already planned to save £800m before the coronavirus struck, but the pandemic has added a further £125m to the BBC’s savings list due to a slump in revenue. The broadcaster must save £25m of this by 2022.