The PM revealed his stance towards the BBC at the G7 summit
Speaking to journalists at the G7 Summit in Biarritz, the Prime Minister revealed his irritation at the broadcasting giant for resisting pressure to reverse its decision to scrap the benefit for nearly four million elderly people from next year. “The BBC received a settlement which was conditional upon their paying for TV licences for the over 75s. They should cough up,” he said. His outburst gives further backing to the Daily Express’s crusade to save the widely-valued pensioner benefit. Mr Johnson promised to find a way to save the free licences – a policy commitment in the 2017 Tory general election manifesto – during his campaign for the Conservative leadership earlier this week. His remarks in France yesterday were seen as indicating that he will not let the matter drop now that he has taken over in Downing Street.
A Downing Street source said: “He feels very strongly about this. He really thinks the BBC should sort this out. We’re not going to let them off the hook.”
Responding to the Prime Minister last night, a BBC spokesman said: “It was the Government who decided to stop funding free TV licences for the over 75s, and Parliament gave responsibility to the BBC to make a decision on the future of the scheme.
“There was no guarantee that the BBC would continue to fund free licences for the over 75s, as the Culture Secretary at the time has confirmed.
“We’ve reached the fairest decision we can in funding free TV licences for the poorest pensioners, while protecting BBC services.
“If the BBC funded all TV licences for the over 75s it would mean the closure of BBC Two, BBC Four, the BBC News Channel, the BBC Scotland channel, Radio 5 Live, and several local radio stations.
“It is a matter for the Government if it wishes to restore funding for free licences for all over 75s.”
BBC insiders insist that the licence fee settlement the Government agreed with the broadcaster specifically handed the decision over the future of free TV licences to the corporation, a move enshrined in law.
Free TV licences for people aged over 75 were introduced in 2000.
In 2015, the then chancellor George Osborne struck a deal with the BBC in which corporation picked up the bill for the benefit from 2020/21 as part of a charter renewal.
BBC chiefs have complained funding free licences currently costs £745million, with the bill set to rise unsustainably in the coming years as a result of the growing elderly population.
George Osborne struck a deal for free TV licences with the BBC in 2000
But BBC accounts recently showed the corporation spent £159million on presenter pay last year – up almost £11million in a year – with Match of the Day host Gary Lineker leading the way with a £1.75million salary.
James Roberts, Political Director of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said: “After the kickback against dragging pensioners into paying the dreaded TV tax, the PM is tuning into the public mood.
“With the current system, wealthier pensioners should expect to pay the licence fee like everyone else.
“But as technology moves forward and people are switching to streaming services, many Brits are wondering why anyone should have to pay a TV tax.
“The Beeb should be moving towards a funding model where subscription fees replace part or all of the license fee, so that we can just axe the TV tax and only those who watch it need to pay.”
BBC accounts show that they spend £1.75million on Gary Lineker’s salary alone
Philippa Childs, head of the broadcasting trade union Bectu, said: “It’s very disappointing that Boris Johnson continues with the narrative that the BBC knew what they were taking on.
“The reality is that they were given little or no choice at the time, when austerity was at its peak and ministers were looking for a convenient way to pass the buck on taking difficult decisions about welfare payments.
“Amidst political uncertainty and ahead of a speculated general election, I’m sure that millions of over-75s, who are set to lose the benefit will not forgive him for this betrayal.
“Instead he could have chosen to do the right thing by them, recognising that loneliness in old age is a significant issue and agree that the Government should fund the benefit in full.
“It’s equally disappointing that the PM is not demonstrating his support for the BBC and BECTU members who work there by acknowledging that funding the benefit in full would involve a 20 percent cut to its funding.
Philippa Childs, head of BECTU
“Cuts of such a size cannot be achieved without significantly impacting the quality of the BBC’s output.
“This would be incredibly self defeating for the Public Service Broadcaster which remains the envy of the world.”
Labour’s Deputy Leader, Shadow Culture Secretary Tom Watson, said: “This Prime Minister’s disregard for older people is appalling.
“He is trying to blame the BBC for his own Government’s policy, but this obfuscation will not work. The blame for scrapping free TV licences lies firmly with the Government.
“Keeping the free licences was a Tory manifesto promise, but because of this Government’s refusal to fund the concession, millions of older people will have their free TV licences scrapped next year.
Johnson’s critics have accused him of blaming the BBC for his own government’s failings
“This Government must stop passing the buck and step in to fund the free TV licences today.”
A Number 10 source said: “The Government agreed the licence fee settlement with the BBC in 2015. At the time, the director general said it was strong deal for the BBC and provided financial stability.
“It saw BBC income boosted by requiring iPlayer users to have a licence, and unfroze the licence fee for the first time since 2010 – with it rising each year with inflation.
“In return, we agreed responsibility for the over 75 concession would transfer to the BBC in June 2020. The BBC must honour this agreement.”