Gordon Brown’s Labour Government introduced free licence fees for the over 75’s in 2001 to a warm welcome. David Cameron’s Tories tried to get the BBC to take over immediate responsibility for paying in 2015.
After a furious row the Government backed down, but only until 2020 when Theresa May’s Government says it “wants and expects” the BBC to continue with “this important concession.”
The serious dilemma for the poor BBC is that the Corporation has been landed with the freedom to decide whether or not to re-introduce the full licence fee for all, whatever their age. More than 4.64 million households would be affected. That “choice” means the BBC, rather than the Government, will get the blame whatever happens.
The BBC can end the concession, become a New Year Scrooge and face the public anger of the elderly, amid inevitable vitriol from the Daily Mail.
Take the free licences on board and the BBC faces a £745 million a year hit, increasing to £1 billion a year by 2030 as the average age of the population continues to rise.
The impact of the arrival of a new £745 million bill at New Broadcasting House could hardly be more serious. It’s the equivalent of the entire cost of BBC Two, BBC Three, BBC Four, the BBC News Channel, CBBC and dear CBeebies so beloved of grandparents.
Such a bill is too large to be met by cost savings. The BBC would have to close services that the public value.
This is a crazy position for the UK’s national broadcaster to find itself in. From both a social and national point of view the BBC should have more money, not less, to fight the good fight against Netfix, Amazon, and Apple, before we even get to fake news.
A BBC consultation has suggested various options including a 50 per cent discount for the over 75’s, or lifting the free threshold to either 77 or even 80. Another is to introduce means testing by limiting the concession to the 900,000 households receiving pension credits. Those who most need free TV licences would get them, though it would still cost the BBC £135 million a year.
The best solution would be to return this thorny issue to Parliament from whence it came.
Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown is supporting a campaign that insists the BBC should not have to face such a self-damaging dilemma.
“Quite simply the BBC should not be making judgments about the distribution of income between social groups,” is how Brown puts it.
He is right. But given the present Government’s fixation with the implications of Brexit, don’t hold your breath about the likelihood of the Government adding £745 million – £1 billion to public spending.
With no good options on the table, the least bad one for the BBC is to bite the bullet and make the majority of over 75’s pay a full contribution to funding an essential UK institution.
Not all over 75’s are poor. Those that are – those receiving pension credits- should be protected.
The biggest disaster of all would be to hobble financially the BBC as a broadcaster – pain that would get worse every year.
Journalist and commentator Raymond Snoddy presented BBC Newswatch for its first eight years