Culture Secretary puts pressure on BBC over free TV licences for over-75s

The Culture Secretary has set up a potential row with the BBC after saying ministers expect free TV licences for over-75s to continue, weeks after the corporation announced a review of the practice.

BBC director general Lord Hall said in September it was looking at the future of the £725 million subsidy scheme after taking on responsibility from the Government as part of its charter renewal negotiations.

But Mr Wright told MPs on Wednesday that he expected the BBC to shoulder the payments for over-75s, which are due to continue until the end of the current Parliament, scheduled to be in 2022.

More than 4.46 million homes with older residents currently receive a free TV licence, saving them £150.50 a year.

The Culture Secretary told the Commons’ Digital, Culture Media and Sport Committee: “The BBC know, and I shall be reinforcing it in future meetings, that our expectation is that they continue with free TV licences for the over-75s.

“We have left them, and will leave them, in no doubt that we expect that to continue.”

The transfer of responsibility for the payments is being phased in from 2018-19, with sole responsibility from 2020, when it is estimated to cost the broadcaster around £725 million.

Free TV licences were first introduced by Gordon Brown in 2001.

During charter renewal negotiations in 2015 ministers pressured the BBC to start shouldering the bill for the benefit.

The corporation appointed consultancy Frontier Economics to review the options and it is expected to report in full in November.

Appearing before the DCMS committee in September, Lord Hall told MPs: “It could be the same. The board could say, we will just continue with it as it is. It could be reformed. There’s a whole load of options.

“We are just not in a position to say what the right option will be. We have got to have a public consultation about what we do.”

Mr Wright, the former Attorney General who replaced Matt Hancock as Culture Secretary earlier this year, clashed with Labour’s Ian Lucas on Wednesday.

Mr Lucas, who raised the removal of the free licences at PMQs last week, said that by moving responsibility for the payments to the BBC, “you are asking the BBC to take on the cost of 20% of their budget”.

Mr Wright replied: “The arrangement that was made with the BBC to do this pre-dates me but I would have expected the BBC would have a sense of that figure when the arrangement was made.”

Mr Lucas said the arrangement “was made very quickly in circumstances which the BBC were very unhappy about”, to which Mr Wright said: “That may or may not be true, but I expect if I were the director general of the BBC I would have asked that question.”