Over-75s TV licence fee decision was 'nuclear', BBC boss says

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The BBC’s director general has claimed the Conservative government went “nuclear” by telling the corporation to take responsibility for free TV licences for over-75s.

The BBC announced last month that most over-75s would lose free licences.

The BBC took on the policy “really unwillingly” but had “no choice”, Tony Hall told MPs on the House of Commons culture select committee.

The decision was made in negotiations with the government in 2015.

Lord Hall said the first he knew about the decision was when then-Culture Secretary John Whittingdale called him to say he had “lost the argument” and that the BBC would have to take over free TV licences for over-75s.

“At which point I said, ‘Well, that’s nuclear.’ And I then laid out the consequences of that decision.”

The BBC has now decided to revoke free TV licences for all over-75s, except those claiming the pension credit benefit. That has proved hugely controversial, with more than 600,000 people signing a petition calling for the move to be reversed.

Conservative MP Julian Knight accused Lord Hall of “whingeing”, suggesting he had misjudged his negotiations with politicians at the time.

The corporation won certain other agreements from the government – including an extended charter period, an increase in the licence fee, no longer paying for broadband roll-out, and plugging a loophole that meant people could watch the iPlayer without a TV licence.

Committee chairman Damian Collins MP suggested those deals were worth “about £700m”, adding: “It seems you’re net gainers from this process.”

The corporation has said keeping free licences for all over-75s would cost £745m, a fifth of the BBC’s annual budget, by 2021/22.

Lord Hall said licence fee negotiations should not happen at such speed behind closed doors in the future.

“I feel very, very strongly that this mustn’t happen again,” he said. “It happened in 2010 over a period of a few days, behind closed doors and it happened again in 2015.

“I think when it comes to 2021, next time it’s negotiated, it needs to be in plain sight with parliamentary involvement in a way that allows proper debate to take place.”

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