The BBC has extended its deadline for over-75s to set up a new paid-for television licence after more than 650,000 households did not respond to its letters setting out the change.
In an update on the controversial new arrangements, the BBC said that more than 2.7m households with a resident who was over 75 had purchased licences, with another 750,000 applying for free licences available to the most vulnerable.
But a statement said that 16% of the group had not replied, and that because of the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic the corporation was “giving older people a bit more time to make arrangements for their next licence”.
The BBC said it had told the group that they are still “legally covered”. Amid claims the move amounted to an “amnesty” on threatened prosecutions, a BBC spokesperson said there was “no new policy”, adding: “We are simply giving more people time to safely set up their licences in light of the pandemic.”
Information sent to over-75s said watching television without a licence is a criminal offence carrying a fine of up to £1,000 but the corporation said nobody who previously owned an over-75 licence has been prosecuted.
The BBC decision in 2019 to remove the automatic right to a free licence for all homes where somebody over 75 lives was the result of a change in the 2015 charter renewal agreement. That transferred the financial burden of the over-75s licence scheme from government to the BBC, which the broadcaster concluded it could not afford.
While those who receive the means-tested pension benefit will still receive a free licence, critics view the change as an undue additional burden on the elderly. The BBC’s defenders suggest that the free licence scheme, introduced in 1999, should be the responsibility of the government if it is to be maintained.
The change was delayed for two months last year because of the coronavirus pandemic. When it was eventually implemented the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, said he felt “let down” by the BBC and claimed the cost could be covered by “efficiency savings”.
The BBC had estimated the cost of keeping the scheme at £745m by 2021-22 and claimed maintaining funding for over-75 licences would have led to the closure of BBC Four, the BBC News channel, the BBC Scotland channel and Radio 5 live, as well as a “number of local radio stations”.