Actor Ricky Tomlinson joined protests last year against the licence cut
In a major climbdown, the Government unveiled a new payment scheme starting in April to allow elderly viewers to spread the cost of the fee over a year.
Campaigners attacked the move as “disappointing” and “a betrayal” that fell short of Boris Johnson’s call for corporation to “cough up” to save the free licences for around 3.7million households.
The latest blow to hard-pressed pensioners follows an £3 hike in the annual fee from from £154.50 to £157.50 announced by the BBC earlier this week.
Dennis Reed, director of the over-60s pressure group Silver Voices, said: “Being able to spread the cost of the licence fee means you still have to pay the money so this sounds very disappointing.
“Boris Johnson said several times that the BBC should ‘cough up’. We will not be satisfied with this.”
Former Labour minister Lord Foulkes, who has campaigned to save the free licences, said: “Spreading the cost out over the year isn’t going to help at all. This is ridiculous and a complete betrayal.
“Many older voters supported the Conservatives at the general election because of this issue and this decision goes against everything they said.”
The Prime Minister has repeatedly urged the BBC to “cough up” and pay for free licences for vulnerable viewers including those aged over 75, which the corporation took responsibility for in a funding shake up.
Ahead of last December’s general election, the Tory manifesto said: “We recognise the value of free TV licences for over-75s and believe they should be funded by the BBC.”
But as it stands the benefit will be scrapped in June and Culture Secretary Baroness Morgan will confirm the new “Simple Payment Plan” in a speech in Westminster today.
Pensioners and representatives from age UK protest outside the Conservative Party HQ
The proposal will effectively introduce monthly payments for the fee for viewers over 75.
BBC chiefs are understood to be delighted that the Government accepted the corporation’s proposal for the payment plan.
Last month, the Cabinet minister told peers the Government was still “in discussions” with the BBC about preserving free licence fees.
Baroness Morgan will also today launch a public consultation on the idea of decriminalising TV licence evasion.
She said last night: “As we move into an increasingly digital age, with more and more channels to watch and platforms to choose from, the time has come to think carefully about how we make sure the TV licence fee remains relevant in this changing media landscape.
“Many people consider it wrong that you can be imprisoned for not paying for your TV licence and that its enforcement punishes the vulnerable.
“Today we are launching a public consultation to make sure we have a fair and proportionate approach to licence fee penalties and payments, that protects those most in need in society.
“Alongside this we’re also announcing a new payment plan to allow people who struggle to pay the licence fee to spread out their payments.
Baroness Morgan will launch a public consultation on the idea of decriminalising TV licence evasion
“This will help prepare the BBC and public service broadcasting for the future and make sure it continues to work for our society, our economy, and the public which funds it.”
At present, anyone who installs or uses a television or watches BBC iPlayer without a TV licence is guilty of a criminal offence and could face a fine of up to £1,000.
Those who refuse to pay the fine for non-payment risk criminal conviction and imprisonment.
Under the decriminalisation proposal, non-payment of the licence fee would no longer be a criminal offence although the BBC could prosecute suspected evaders in the civil courts.
Ministers believe the idea needs to be examined because of dramatic changes in broadcasting with the rise of the internet and subscription-based television services including Netflix and Amazon.
In 2018, more than 121,000 people were convicted and sentenced for evasion and issued with an average fine of £176.
The consultation comes ahead of negotiations between the Government and the BBC later this year over a new funding settlement due to come into force in 2022.
BBC chiefs are opposed to the decriminalisation move. Insiders say civil prosecutions could mean higher fines than at present for people who try to avoid the fee.
A BBC spokesman said: “A detailed Government-commissioned review found the current system to be the fairest and most effective.
At present, anyone who installs a television without a TV licence could be fined
“It did not recommend change – in part because the current system is effective in ensuring payment with very few people ever going to prison. For example, the most recent annual figures show only five people in England and Wales were jailed for not paying court fines.
“So there is a question about what issue this repeat consultation is trying to solve.
“Of course it is important that any system commands public respect and we hope that any debate about the future is based on the evidence.
“And if there are changes, they must be fair to law abiding licence fee payers and delivered in a way that doesn’t fundamentally undermine the BBC’s ability to deliver the services they love.
“We have a settlement agreed with the Government and any substantial changes to the BBC’s income should be considered as part of the next licence fee settlement.”
Tory MP Julian Knight, chairman of the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee said: “Today’s announcement from the Government which could see an end to people getting a criminal record for not buying a TV licence marks a significant shift in the broadcasting landscape, with major implications for the future of the BBC.
“With negotiations on its funding due to start later this year there’s a need for an urgent and open conversation about how people consume media and how they should pay for it.
“As Chair I’ll be urging the DCMS Committee to take the lead on steering the BBC towards a new and sustainable funding model which ensures the most vulnerable in our society do not lose out.”