EXCLUSIVE: Jeremy Hunt Wanted BBC To Cover Cost Of TV Licence For Over-75s

12 June 2019, 08:28 | Updated: 12 June 2019, 09:44

Jeremy Hunt came up with the idea of making over-75s pay for the TV Licence
Jeremy Hunt came up with the idea of making over-75s pay for the TV Licence. Picture: PA

Jeremy Hunt wanted the BBC to cover the cost of TV licences for over-75s, LBC can reveal.

The BBC took the heavily-criticised decision this week to scrap free TV licences for pensioners, affecting 3.7million people.

More than 250,000 people have now signed a petition demanding the elderly do not have to pay the £154.50 annual fee to watch television.

The BBC says that if it had to find the £750million shortfall elsewhere, it would have to cut four television channels and numerous local radio stations.

Now LBC can reveal the man who first came up with the idea to make the BBC cover the cost of the free TV licences is one of the frontrunners in the race to be the next Prime Minister.

Back in 2010, Mr Hunt was the Culture Secretary and in charge of negotiating the BBC’s new funding settlement. 

LBC's Political Editor Theo Usherwood has unearthed a report from the time by MPs, which revealed that at the start of the negotiations, Mr Hunt wanted to force the BBC to cover the cost of free TV licences for those aged 75 and over.

In a letter to the Culture, Media and Sport select committee, Mr Hunt wrote: "Transferring the funding of TV licences for those aged 75 and over and the World Service from the Government to the BBC were two of the options under consideration.” 

Mr Hunt was told by BBC bosses that it would be unable to absorb the cost but nevertheless pressed ahead with the idea. The problem for the Conservatives is that it is a manifesto pledge from 2017 to maintain free TV licences for the elderly.

BBC Director General Tony Hall
BBC Director General Tony Hall. Picture: PA

Jeremy Hunt has based his campaign on being a ruthless negotiator in this leadership campaign. He has pitched himself as the man who can secure concessions from the European Union: a challenge Theresa May dismally failed.

But in this instance, he was so ruthless, he was willing to take a decision that would inevitably, as Martin Vickers MP put it, force the BBC to make the elderly pay to watch television.

In fact, Mr Hunt was only stopped in 2010 by the Liberal Democrats media spokesman Don Foster during the coalition and he agreed with then Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg to block the move.

Lord Foster told LBC: "I discovered that George Osborne and Jeremy Hunt were planning this move to make the BBC responsible for what is a welfare policy.

"I thought it was totally wrong to put that responsibility on the BBC. We don't ask pharmacists to choose who gets free prescriptions or opticians who gets free eye tests. Why should the BBC choose who gets free TV licences?"

When the Conservatives won a Commons majority in 2015, David Cameron and George Osborne got their way as BBC bosses agreed they would be responsible for the cost of free television licences for the elderly.

Despite that, yesterday the current Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright attempted to blame the BBC for the decision. 

He said: "The BBC is operationally independent, so the announcement yesterday is very much their decision.

"But taxpayers want to see the BBC using its substantial licence fee income in an appropriate way to ensure it delivers for UK audiences."

A statement from Jeremy Hunt's campaign said: "It's really disappointing the BBC have taken this decision which is a blow to millions of deserving pensioners.

"We would sit down with the BBC to find out how we can ensure we deliver on the Conservative manifesto promise to protect the license fee support for older people."