The BBC has warned that it may be forced to cut programmes and services should the current scheme to give people over 75 free TV licences continue past 2020.
At the moment, any household with an occupant aged 75 or older is entitled to a free licence. This is currently funded by the government, but is expected to be shouldered by the BBC when the scheme comes up for renewal in June 2020.
In a consultation document about the over-75 licence fee, the BBC said it would cost the corporation an astounding £745 million in 2021/22 – a fifth of the BBC’s budget and equivalent to what it spends in total on BBC2, BBC3, BBC4, the BBC News Channel and children’s channels CBBC and CBeebies, and more than the cost of its radio stations.
The three-month consultation sees the BBC turn to the public to hear their views about the future of the scheme, with a decision set to be made by 2019.
Tony Hall, BBC Director-General, said: “This is an important decision. We have set out a range of options – each has merits and consequences, with implications for the future of the BBC, and for everyone, including older people.
“We need to hear views to help the BBC make the best and fairest decision.”
One option is to renew the scheme, allowing over-75s to continue to receive free television licences but shifting the bill from the government to the BBC.
Another suggestion is to charge a discounted rate for those over 75, though that too would be pricey, equivalent to the budget of BBC2.
A third option is a universal licence fee, which would allow the BBC to continue without having to make significant cuts. However, this could put the poorest pensioners at risk of prosecution should they no longer be able to afford to pay for a licence – a potentially bitter irony since the free over-75s licence was first introduced by Gordon Brown in 1999 to help prevent pensioner poverty.
Another plan would see the BBC reform the scheme in some way, perhaps increasing the age threshold to over 77 or over 80, or means-testing the scheme.
On the proposed changes, Lord Hall explained, “While the costs of the schemes are rising, so is the need for our programmes and content. We are looking at options for reform, what’s fair, what’s feasible.”