Jeremy Hunt MP, one of the frontrunners in the ongoing Tory leadership debacle, opened the way to allowing the BBC to scrap blanket free TV licenses for the over 75’s, it has been reported.
Last week, the BBC unveiled plans that will see nearly four million older people lose the right to a free TV license, in a controversial proposal that opponents have branded “an outrage”.
According to LBC Radio, Mr Hunt, who in 2010 was the Culture Secretary given the responsibility of negototiating a settlement with the BBC, wanted the public broadcaster to cover the full cost of providing free licences to all over 75s.
In a letter to the Culture, Media and Sport select committee, LBC Radio reports that Mr Hunt wrote: “Transferring the funding of TV licences for those aged 75 and over and the World Service from the Government to the BBC were two of the options under consideration.”
He was told in no uncertain terms by BBC bosses that they couldn’t possibly afford to continue blanket free TV licenses for all over 75s under the proposed arrangement, at least not without jeoparding services.
The changes were only halted after they were blocked by the Conservative’s coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats.
Lib Dem media spokesman Don Foster said: “I discovered that George Osborne and Jeremy Hunt were planning this move to make the BBC responsible for what is a welfare policy.
“I thought it was totally wrong to put that responsibility on the BBC.
“We don’t ask pharmacists to choose who gets free prescriptions or opticians who gets free eye tests. Why should the BBC choose who gets free TV licences?”
Mr Hunt has been highly vocal in condemning the BBC for the decision, but has yet to admit his own involvement.
“The BBC is operationally independent, so the announcement yesterday is very much their decision”, he told LBC Radio at the time the news broke.
“But taxpayers want to see the BBC using its substantial licence fee income in an appropriate way to ensure it delivers for UK audiences.”
The plans mean that free TV licences will be means-tested from June 2020, meaning only those who are eligible for Pensions Credits will be entitled to a free TV licence from this date.
BBC Chairman Sir David Clementi said: “While many supported copying the Government’s concession – so that all over 75s received a free TV licence – there was also strong support for reform. There was least support for abolishing the concession entirely.
“Ultimately, the Board did not think it right to abolish all free TV licences. While research suggests pensioners are now better off than they were when the concession was first introduced nearly 20 years ago, the simple fact is that many are still in poverty – and many want the companionship the BBC can provide.”
He added: “Copying the current scheme was ultimately untenable. It would have cost £745 million a year by 2021/22 – and risen to over one billion by the end of the next decade. £745 million a year is equivalent to around a fifth of the BBC’s spending on services.”
He concluded: “Linking a free licence for over 75s to Pension Credit was the leading reform option.
“It protects the poorest over 75s, while protecting the services that they, and all audiences, love.
“It is the fairest and best outcome. It is one we can implement and endorse. This is an outcome that is the fairest possible in difficult circumstances.”
A spokesperson for Mr Hunt’s Tory leadership campaign said: “It’s really disappointing the BBC have taken this decision which is a blow to millions of deserving pensioners.
“We would sit down with the BBC to find out how we can ensure we deliver on the Conservative manifesto promise to protect the license fee support for older people.”