New culture secretary John Whittingdale spoke today in Parliament about the Tories’ plans for the BBC. Headline news was their highly anticipated intention to force the BBC to take on the costs for free TV licences for the over 75s. In doing so they are in effect killing two birds with one stone.
The cost of the free TV licences in around £750m, so this would leave significantly less money for the BBC to spend on its core business. At the same time though, Whittingdale announced that the BBC would also be able to means test the free licences if they wish, so at a stroke they are dishing out a sizable cut to the BBC’s budget and in effect hacking away at one of the few remaining universal benefits.
Since returning to power in 2010, many Tories have been itching to remove these universal benefits (free over 60s bus travel is another), but they understood that these are popular with pensioners. Almost half of over 65s voted Tory in May. What this latest announcement does then is allow them to hack away at this universal benefit, while shifting the blame onto someone else i.e. the BBC.
If the Beeb don’t means test the free licences, they will face difficult choices elsewhere, and if they do, the Government can just say they disagree but it has nothing to do with them. This is exactly the same strategy they have adopted in local government. They slashed budgets, but removed funding ring fences , so if a council stopped funding something, the Government simply said the council was implementing ‘political’ cuts.
Plus ça change, but is this clever, gutless, contemptible, or a mixture of the three?