A petition opposing the BBC’s decision to axe free TV licences for the over-75s has reached half a million signatures.
The petition on the Age UK website, entitled Switched Off: Save free TV for older people, reached the 500,000 mark on Saturday afternoon.
Funding the free licences, which have been available to all over-75s for nearly two decades, is due to be transferred from the Government to the BBC next year as part of an agreement hammered out in 2015.
The corporation has said free licences will be means-tested under a new scheme that intends to protect programming while dealing with the extra funding burden.
The Age UK petition says: “The BBC has announced they plan to means-test TV licences for the over 75s. That means they’ll only be free for people receiving pension credit. We believe this change will harm millions of older people who rely on their TV. Together, we must demand the Government takes back responsibility for funding free TV licences.”
Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, said it had been “inundated” with phone calls and emails in support of the petition.
She said: “The fact that our #SwitchedOff petition now has more than half a million signatures demonstrates the strength of public feeling about the unfairness of the Government scrapping free TV licences for over-75s, and remember that about half of this age group (47%) are not themselves online.
“Ever since the BBC announced its decision to means-test the free TV licence from June 2020, we have been inundated at Age UK with phone calls, emails and petition sign-ups, to the extent that our IT has sometimes struggled to cope.”
She said the petition would remain open in the hope it reaches 650,000 signatures.
Abrahams said the blame for the move lies with the Government and issued a renewed call on all Conservative Party leadership candidates to take back responsibility for the funding of free TV licences for over-75s if they become prime minister.
“If the Government wants to change it then let’s have a proper public discussion about it, not the shabby behind closed doors deal which has led us to the mess we are in now,” she said.
“That’s the least older people deserve.”
Labour has also launched a campaign to restore free TV licences for all over 75s, describing the move as “an act of cruelty”, and another petition condemning the move remains on the Parliament website.
Many have criticised the move, including Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who said that providing over-75s with free TV licences “is not too much to ask”, and senior Conservative Andrea Leadsom, who called for the new ruling to be scrapped.
In a statement on Monday, BBC chairman Sir David Clementi and director-general Tony Hall said continuing the Government’s scheme would have had a “severe impact” on services and that the new model “represents the fairest possible outcome”.
A Government spokesman said: “We’re very disappointed with this decision – we’ve been clear that we want and expect the BBC to continue this concession.
“People across the country value television as a way to stay connected and we want the BBC to look at further ways to support older people.
“Taxpayers want to see the BBC using its substantial licence fee income in an appropriate way to ensure it delivers for UK audiences, which includes showing restraint on salaries for senior staff.”
Only around 1.5 million households will be eligible for a free TV licence under the new scheme.
It is thought around 3.7 million pensioners will lose out.