The BBC’s director-general Tony Hall said he “understands” the position in which thousands of pensioners who have seen their free licences scrapped now find themselves. But he said he believed the BBC’s decision to axe free licences for all over-75s other than those who claim pension credit is the “right way forward”, and it is not up to the publicly-funded broadcaster to draw the line of poverty. Lord Hall was quizzed by MPs sitting on the House of Commons’ digital, culture, media and sport committee today.
Ian Lucas MP brought to the director-general’s attention the case of a 93-year-old Normandy veteran called Ted Edwards in his constituency, Wrexham, who is now facing the hefty BBC bill.
Despite the Labour MP urging the BBC to scrap its decision, Lord Hall said: “The board has taken a position, and let me first of all say that I understand the position that Mr Edwards finds himself in, I respect completely what he’s done with his life, he’s been through things I hope I never have to go through, so I have the deepest respect for that, but the board have come to a decision, and myself, to balance two fairnesses.
“To balance the fairness to people over 75 like Mr Edwards, how we work through and hold a concession which is fair to them, while also being fair to the majority of licence fee payers who don’t want and would have to fund the £750 million if the concession was to carry on, and those two fairnesses have been the things we’re trying to balance.
“And it seemed to the board that the right way forward was to attach the concession to pension credit - that’s not our determination of poverty among pensioners, but it’s not up for us to determine what the poverty level is.”
The BBC announced last month it will scrap free licences for over-75s from June next year, sparking outrage across the country.
The free TV licences were initially introduced in 2000.
But the BBC agreed to cover the costs of these fees following a new charter agreement negotiated in 2015, which allowed the company to raise the cost of the licences - amounting today to £154.50 per year.
Referring to the deal struck with the Government, Lord Hall said: “I think there was no option, as those who were there at the time have made absolutely clear.
“This was coming to us whether we wanted it or not.
“This was a new Conservative Government with a majority, coming in fresh with the success of that election - this was coming our way, come what may.”
He also “refuted” allegations the BBC is not honouring the agreement with the Government.
Lord Hall said: “We are carrying out what the Government said we should do to the T.
“What I’m trying to establish is that as part of that settlement in 2015 with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, it was clear reform of the over-75s - provided we could go through the proper consultation and the consultation backed us up - was on the table and everybody knew reform was likely. Not inevitable, but likely.”
As many as 20 celebrities, including Dame Helen Mirren, have so far joined the fight to save free TV licences for over-75s.
Upon voicing her support to pensioners on Wednesday, Dame Mirren branded “heartbreaking” this move, adding: “It’s absolutely heartbreaking that so many older people are going to lose their free licence, when television plays such an important role in their lives.
“In many cases it acts as an important contact with the outside world.”