For some elderly people TV is their only companion
But in the House of Lords, peers pushed for the changes to be delayed indefinitely. Lord McCrea called on the broadcaster to keep its promises to senior citizens. He said: “In light of what our elderly have already experienced with COVID-19, the isolation and loneliness they have endured… it’s time for the BBC to stop the blame game and honour the clear commitment already given to the over-75s.” The BBC is believed to be considering announcing another three-month delay before charging the fee, which will hit nearly 4 million viewers.
But peers want the plans to be put on ice long-term while an alternative way of saving cash is found.
They claim the arrival of Tim Davie as the new director-general in September is a chance to make changes.
Broadcaster Baroness Bakewell, below, said the over-75s are a “very varied” group of people, with some who are “extremely rich and can afford it and many of them can’t afford it at all”.
“Therefore there is an opportunity here given a new negotiation to offer some scale of payment,” she added.
The broadcaster Joan Bakewell
Leading campaigner Lord Foulkes, who secured the discussion in Parliament, said the decision to push back the June start date for billing the over-75s in light of the coronavirus crisis showed television is a lifeline for many older viewers.
“Surely both the BBC and the Government have accepted by postponing for two months, how vital television is for old people keeping in touch with vital information from the Government as well as entertainment and other information,” the Labour peer said.
“Surely it’s not too much to ask the Government and the BBC to get together now to discuss postponing this withdrawal of the free TV licences indefinitely.”
The Daily Express has been crusading to keep TV licences free for the over-75s since the benefit was put under threat.
New BBC Director-General Tim Davie
BBC bosses agreed to take on responsibility for funding the scheme as part of the charter agreement hammered out with the Government in 2015.
But the corporation now says it cannot afford to continue the universal benefit, which costs £745 million a year.
Critics point out it continues to hand generous salary hikes to its stars, with football commentator Gary Lineker topping its pay charts at £1.75 million.
Tory peer Lord Naseby said the BBC should find another way to keep the benefit instead of “taxing” older people.
He said: “Bearing in mind that pensioners have suffered more than most in the lockdown… and that TV remains their number one contact with outside life, is it really sensible or fair that the vast majority of them are going to face an annual tax?
“Surely the BBC should find a way to pay this long-held free TV licence?”
Campaigners called for the BBC and government ministers to get round the table to find a solution.
Caroline Abrahams, the charity director at Age UK, said: “Members of the House of Lords are sometimes said to be out of touch but yesterday they surely spoke for the country when they called for TV to remain free for all our over-75s.
“Older people have endured a great deal of hardship, loneliness and isolation over the last few months as COVID-19 did its worst, and fear too, given the knowledge that they were in the firing line of this horrible virus that has taken so many lives.
“No one knows whether this pandemic really is on the wane now or just taking a breather before it comes roaring back.
“The last thing our over-75s need in this situation is the extra anxiety and hassle of navigating a new TV licence system, with the spectre of prosecution hanging over them if they get it wrong.”
Research by the charity found nine in ten older people said television had become more important to them during the pandemic.
Older people’s group Silver Voices said the over-75s were being used as a “punchbag” in the row between the BBC and government over who should cover the cost of the scheme.
Director Dennis Reed said: “Older people are fed up with the shadow boxing between the government and the BBC over free licences with us as the punchbag in the middle being pummelled from both sides.
“We can’t have another three months of this uncertainty. Get in the ring and sort it out.”
Only viewers on Pension Credits will be eligible for a free licence under its plans to change the system.
From next month the over-75s may have to pay the TV licence
But around 1.2 million pensioners who are eligible for the support do not receive it, with some unaware they are entitled to it while others do not want to admit they need extra help.
A BBC spokesman said: “The Government decided to end the free TV licence for the over 75s and gave the BBC Board responsibility to decide on its future.
“We consulted with the public and reached the fairest decision possible, to support the poorest oldest pensioners.
“We delayed the introduction of the new scheme until August as a result of the pandemic, and we are keeping that decision under review. During lockdown the BBC has played an important role informing, educating and entertaining all our audiences, including older people. The Board will announce its decision this month.”
Media minister Baroness Barran said the BBC “remains operationally independent of Government” and “is responsible for this matter”.