Monday 16 March 2020 12:14 pm

BBC delays licence fee changes for over-75s due to virus fears

The BBC today said it will push back plans to end the blanket free licence fee scheme for over-75s amid concerns about the impact of the coronavirus outbreak.

Pensioners were due to face changes to the licence fee from 1 June, but this will now be delayed until 1 August.

Read more: Putting Six Nations behind a paywall would be ‘dreadful’, says BBC boss

Millions of over-75s will have to start paying the £157.50 fee after the government withdrew funding. The BBC has said it will only cover the cost of those who receive pension credit.

But the move has come into focus in light of the coronavirus outbreak, as people — particularly those aged 70 and above — become increasingly dependent on the state broadcaster for information.

BBC chairman Sir David Clementi said the decision came in light of “exceptional circumstances”.

“Now is not the right time. We are fully focussed on delivering our services to the public at this difficult time,” he said.

The BBC said it would keep the issue under review as the public health crisis develops.

It comes after MPs urged the government to agree a new funding formula to maintain free licence fees for the over-75s, warning it would be “lamentable” for people to have to pick up the tab for the “flawed” decision.

The government said it was “disappointed” the BBC decided to restrict the free licence fee scheme to over-75s receiving pension credit.

But the DCMS select committee chair, Conservative MP Julian Knight, slammed the government’s response as “little more than hand-wringing” and called on ministers to act.

He said: “It’s clear from the government’s response that there will be no bail-out for the BBC to maintain free TV licences for the over 75s.

“We note the government’s expression of mere disappointment at the BBC’s decision to restrict free licences. This approach struck the committee as little more than hand-wringing.

“The BBC has told us about the number of hours those over 75 spend with the BBC and how they depend on it. It’s lamentable that it should be this group of people who will quite literally pay the penalty for a flawed charter renewal deal agreed in a rush behind closed doors.”

An earlier DCMS committee report found that the 2015 funding negotiations that led to the BBC restrictions was “flawed” on all sides and one that gave no opportunity for consultation with licence fee payers.

Former BBC Trust chair Rona Fairhead was accused of allowing the broadcaster to be “steamrollered” into taking on the £750m cost of funding free TV licences for the over-75s by former chancellor George Osborne, as part of the charter renewal.

Read more: BBC could take pensioners to court over licence fee evasion

During an appearance before the DCMS committee in 2016 Labour’s Paul Farrelly said: “You could have said, ‘It is your Conservative manifesto promise, if you cease the funding, then you are left with a broken promise. It is not up to the BBC and the trust to fund a Conservative manifesto commitment.’”

Farrelly added: “You allowed yourselves – in a way that the trust and Michael Lyons did not allow themselves – to be steamrollered by the chancellor and you didn’t stand up for the licence fee payer.”