Dame Esther Rantzen: BBC timing on TV licence change is ‘insensitive’

Dame Esther Rantzen has said the BBC's timing in ending the universal free TV licence for over-75s is "insensitive".

But the broadcaster and Silver Line founder, 80, said that it was the action of politicians that felt like a "slap in the face to older people".

Her comments come after the BBC said it would start means-testing the entitlement from August 1, having previously delayed its introduction because of the pandemic.

The BBC has said that continuing the universal entitlement would hit "programmes and services".

Dame Esther told the PA news agency that it would have been "kinder" if the BBC waited until September when life could be easier for pensioners.

"The BBC probably feel that their reputation is very high at the moment," the former That's Life presenter said.

"They've been a fantastic source of news, they're offering educational programmes for children who can't go to school.

"So they're taking advantage of this moment but I think that they should have left it until September, when life would have eased up a bit for all of us, particularly for older people."

She said: "I think if the BBC had waited until the autumn it would have been kinder.

Outgoing director-general Lord Tony Hall
Outgoing director-general Lord Tony Hall (Justin Tallis/PA)

"But my main criticism at the moment is for the politicians. I do think that (Culture Secretary) Oliver Dowden, who said he felt let down by the BBC, was shifting blame...

"It was Gordon Brown who decided to make this gift of free television licences, and it was George Osborne (then chancellor) who took it away and said the Government would no longer fund it.

"And that's what feels like a slap in the face to older people."

Dame Esther said: "I think the isolation that they've (older people) been going through, particularly during the pandemic, it's been intensified.

"And they depend upon their television for company, for keeping them in touch with the world outside.

A TV licence
TV licences have previously been free for over-75s (Andy Hepburn/PA)

"And many of them are not comfortable with the internet. And so it is their only means of contact with the outside world.

"And it makes their life worth living.

"I think it's insensitive timing and the politicians are just using it to scapegoat the BBC when it's in fact, their responsibility."

Over-75s must receive pension credit to receive the free TV licence, which costs those who pay £157.50, from August 1.

Dame Esther said the BBC should launch a "major campaign to persuade those who are eligible for pension credit to apply for it".

Her comments come after Mr Dowden said he felt "let down" by the BBC.

Speaking at the Downing Street coronavirus briefing, he said people "up and down the country" would feel the same way about the BBC's move to begin means-testing.

The BBC agreed to take on responsibility for funding the scheme as part of the charter agreement hammered out with the Government in 2015.

"They said that it was a good settlement, and I regret that they couldn't find efficiency savings in order to avoid having to impose the licence fee on the over-75 in the way that they have set out," Mr Dowden said.

BBC cost cutting plans
BBC Broadcasting House in London (Aaron Chown/PA)

He added: "I feel let down that the BBC haven't funded this. I'm sure people up and down the country will feel let down that they haven't funded it."

His comments come as the Government prepares to announce its response to a consultation on decriminalising licence fee evasion.

Announcing the change on Thursday, BBC chairman Sir David Clementi said "it is not the BBC making (a) judgment about poverty".

"It is the Government who sets and controls that measure," Sir David said.

The BBC has been under "severe financial pressure due to the pandemic", he added.

Boris Johnson's official spokesman said the Prime Minister disagreed with the move.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson
Prime Minister Boris Johnson disagreed with the BBC's move (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

"This is the wrong decision.

"We recognise the value of free TV licences for over-75s and believe that they should be funded by the BBC," the spokesman said.

Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee chairman Julian Knight described the decision as a "body blow to millions of British pensioners".

The Conservative MP said: "This mess is a result of a poor decision struck by the outgoing director-general and now Britain's pensioners are having to pick up the cost."

Age UK charity director Caroline Abrahams said that the move will "feel like another kick in the teeth, during a terrible year."

But in "reality the principal responsibility lies with the Government", she said.

BBC to end free licence fee for most over-75s from 1 August, after a two-month delay due to coronavirus pandemic https://t.co/NxnBYYg6Kc

— BBC Breaking News (@BBCBreaking) July 9, 2020

"The sadness is that these older people have already endured so much over the last few months."

The BBC said safety would be at the "heart" of the scheme, as "no-one needs to take any immediate action, or leave their home, to claim for a free TV licence or pay for one".

The broadcaster, which faces increased competition from streaming giants, has said it cannot afford to take on the financial burden from the Government.

Continuing with the Government scheme would have cost the corporation £745 million, the BBC said, meaning the closures of BBC Two, BBC Four, the BBC News Channel, the BBC Scotland channel, Radio 5 Live, and a number of local radio stations, as well as other cuts and reductions.

The BBC has launched a programme of voluntary redundancy as it attempts to make £125 million in savings this year, on top of the previous £800 million savings target, due to the pandemic.

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