BBC must 'love bomb' over-75s to make up £50m licence fee shortfall

·4-min read
BBC - Chris J. Ratcliffe /Bloomberg
BBC - Chris J. Ratcliffe /Bloomberg

The BBC must "love bomb" the over-75s because it needs them to make up a £50 million shortfall in licence fee payments, the chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has warned.

Julian Knight MP said the corporation is walking a "tightrope" of ensuring customers comply with the law, but also taking care not to alienate those on whom it relies to stay afloat.

The National Audit Office estimates that the BBC has lost £50 million in the last year alone due to people failing to pay the licence fee, said Mr Knight.

His comments come as the BBC ended its licence fee grace period for over-75s on Saturday, with 260,000 pensioners still yet to pay.

He said the solution is to launch a charm offensive on pensioners and convince them that it is worth paying for what the BBC has to offer, rather than sending letters chasing payments which are "not particularly pleasant".

'The BBC is now walking a real tightrope'

"We are seeing a degree of non-payment that we've not seen since the early 1990s - that is quite a major hit to the bottom line," he told BBC Radio 4.

"The BBC is now walking a real tightrope. It needs to ensure compliance with the law, but if it's too heavy-handed it risks a great degree of alienation which will cost it a lot of money when it comes to non-payment.

"I think the BBC needs to love bomb the over-75s. An honest discussion about what the BBC delivers for them. They're the group that actually, in many respects, get the most from the BBC because they're most reliant on terrestrial television."

The right to a free TV licence for over-75s ended in August 2020 for all except those in receipt of the pension credit benefit. A grace period for those affected to organise payment was introduced in February due to the pandemic.

The BBC said if it continues to fund these free licences, it would cost a fifth of its total income.

However, campaigners have argued that those who do not quite qualify for the pension credit exemption are in the most vulnerable group, and could "fall into poverty" when asked to start paying again.

"It really isn't a good look for anyone if over-75s end up in the magistrates court," said Mr Knight.

The BBC has instructed Capita, the firm that enforces licence fee payment, to make “customer care visits” to pensioners’ homes from the autumn.

'Threatening to send round the boys'

Lord Botham, who is campaigning against the over-75s charge, accused the BBC of using “Orwellian language” and of intimidating the elderly by “threatening to send round the boys”.

Responsibility for TV licences for the over-75s was passed from the Government to the BBC as part of the broadcaster's last royal charter.

Dennis Reed, director of the Silver Voices campaign group, has called on the Government to step in.

“The BBC is calling the people carrying out these visits ‘customer support officers’ but their job is to enforce payment. They will be asking people why they haven’t got a licence,” said Mr Reed.

“Clearly, the BBC is not going to do anything other than enforce the licence fee. It is now time for the Government to act. I’m sure they don’t want to see senior citizens in their 80s and 90s, who have paid tax throughout their lives, fined up to £1,000 and carted off to jail.”

A TV Licensing spokesperson said: “So far nine out of 10 over 75 households have made arrangements and we are grateful for their support for the licence fee.

“We will continue to support the small group of older customers who are yet to get set up, which is why we have written to them outlining the simple steps they need to take.

“In addition, customer care visits, which will begin in autumn, have been carefully designed for those who may require further assistance. They are not enforcement visits and will be carried out by a specially trained customer care team.”

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