BBC is ‘clinging on to licence fee’ says Mark Littlewood
The corporation hit 4.5 million older pensioners with a bill for the first time in 20 years last August, despite warnings some would be left having to choose between paying up or heating their homes. It comes as MPs found the broadcaster has spent more than £1 million of fee payers’ money fighting sex and race tribunals brought by its own staff. Campaign group Silver Voices said it was time for the BBC to reach a compromise with the over-75s after the stall in licence take-up rates.
Director Dennis Reed said: “The BBC has got itself on the horns of a dilemma. Its carrot and stick policy to cajole the over-75s to pay the licence fee has clearly stalled, but any change of policy to take legal action against this huge group of older people will be both costly and extremely unpopular.”
BBC policy director Clare Sumner wrote to Silver Voices stating 2.7 million licences have been bought by the over-75s, just 100,000 more than in November.
Another 750,000 have applied for a free licence because they are on Pension Credit.
Mr Reed said it leaves a hardcore of around one million “licence refuseniks” who are “not shifting”, leaving the corporation down by £160 million.
He urged BBC director general Tim Davie to look at solutions put forward by Silver Voices, such as extra help for pensioners struggling to afford the £157.50 bill and exemptions for people paying care costs.
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Mr Reed said: “Silver Voices proposed a number of compromise options to the Director General and his team last autumn, but these were rejected out of hand. I have renewed our offer to discuss options which would cost a lot less than £160 million to get the BBC out of this hole of their own making”.
Silver Voices is running a petition calling for the government to take back control of the free licence scheme as the BBC has “made such a mess of it”.
Leading campaign Lord Foulkes said the “plight of lonely older people gets worse” the longer the pandemic continues.
“The vital information and entertainment they get from TV is now needed even more,” he said.
“Sadly the issue of free TV licenses has been swamped by wider concerns.
“Unless it is dealt with urgently by the Government I fear more older people will die alone at home and each become one of the ever growing catalogue of morbid statistics.”
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TV Licensing said it will not carry out enforcement action against older pensioners at the moment and insisted it is still processing applications.
It comes as the government shelved proposals on decriminalising non-payment of the licence fee after a public consultation on reforms.
Anyone who installs or uses a television or watches BBC iPlayer without paying the fee if they are required to is guilty of a criminal offence and could face a fine of up to £1,000.
Those who refuse to pay the fine for non-payment risk criminal conviction and imprisonment.
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said the government “remains concerned” that a criminal sanction for TV licence evasion is “increasingly disproportionate and unfair” in a modern public service broadcasting system.
The consultation, which received more than 154,000 responses, showed that a “significant number of people” oppose criminal penalties and some highlighted the “considerable stress and anxiety” it can cause for the “most vulnerable in society, such as older people”.
But he said the government recognised that changing the system could leave viewers facing significantly higher fines for non-payment under a civil regime.
He said the issue of decriminalisation will “remain under active consideration” while more work is carried out on alternative enforcement schemes.
Meanwhile, the Commons culture committee found the BBC spent more than £1 million on legal fees fighting equal pay and race discrimination claims brought by staff.
The bill only covers the cost of external barristers and solicitors brought in for tribunal claims and does not include the 2,000 hours in-house lawyers spent dealing with allegations.
Committee chairman Julian Knight said: “It is unbelievable that the BBC has spent more than £1 million of licence fee payers’ money fighting claims brought by its own staff about equal pay and race discrimination.
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“Money that could have gone into making programmes or alleviating licence-fee costs for the over-75s has instead been used to pay the salaries of barristers and lawyers.
“And this at a time when the corporation is struggling to balance its books with hundreds of journalists’ jobs being cut.
“This disclosure sits uncomfortably against the BBC’s claim that it offers value for money. It must now offer a full explanation of how legal costs were allowed to escalate to such levels.”
A TV Licensing spokesperson said: “Around 80 per cent of over-75 households have now transitioned to the new system, including those in receipt of Pension Credit who are eligible for a free licence funded by the BBC.
“We continue to process applications, we’re giving people plenty of time to get set-up, the process is covid-secure and we have a range of measures to support people, including payment plans. We will not be visiting households registered as having held a free over-75s licence during this time.”
TV Licensing insisted the claim the corporation will be left £160 million out of pocket is “wrong” because it will backdate bills for those who have not paid up so far.
A spokesperson said: “This claim is wrong. We continue to process applications, we are giving people plenty of time to get set up and we are helping to spread their payments. Some people will be eligible for a free licence and those who pay will have their payments backdated.”
By Silver Voices director Dennis Reed
All those who thought that the battle to keep free TV licences for the over- 75s was over last August, were badly mistaken. The BBC assumed that after the media spotlight dimmed, most over 75s would succumb to threatening reminders and pay up. The BBC and the Government seriously underestimated the grit and persistence of this generation when faced with the scrapping of a hard-won welfare benefit.
Silver Voices has been supporting all those senior citizens who have decided not to pay the licence fee on principle and those who cannot afford to pay because they find themselves just above the pension credit limit. We have encouraged the feeling of solidarity which comes with joint action and joint objectives. Our members below the age of 75 have supported their fellows through our ‘gum up the works’ policy of complicating and delaying payments to TV Licensing.
The BBC is now facing a financial crisis. Over million over 75s have not paid a penny towards the licence fee, which became due last August, leaving a gigantic £160 million hole in the BBC Budget this year. It is logistically impossible for the BBC to take enforcement action against one million determined senior citizens and even to try would cause immense reputational damage. The BBC and the Government need to change strategy and find a way to restore a fair free licences scheme.
When I met the Director General of the BBC last autumn, I made several compromise suggestions which would cost a lot less then £160 million, including widening the exemptions policy or adopting a voluntary scheme. These options were rejected out of hand at the time, but I have just renewed my offer of negotiations to resolve their crisis. The Government too has a responsibility to intervene and find a solution. It is no longer good enough for the PM to criticise the BBC for scrapping the scheme, without putting any pressure on the Corporation to settle the dispute.
Silver Voices will never give up the fight for our older generations, some of whom fought in the Second World War, and who have paid their taxes and national insurance all their working lives. Remember, allowances such as free licences were introduced to compensate for the very low level of the UK state pension compared to other developed countries.
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