Peers piled fresh pressure on the Government today to save over-75s’ free TV licences.
Millions of pensioners face being stripped of the benefit when curbs are due to come into force on August 1.
Restrictions were due on June 1 but were delayed by two months because of the coronavirus pandemic.
A last-ditch fight to preserve the lifeline unfolded in the House of Lords where calls mounted for the Tories to protect free licences.
Labour’s Lord Foulkes, who chairs Parliament’s cross-party group on ageing and older people, wanted Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden and incoming BBC director-general Tim Davie to hold talks and thrash out a plan to save the benefit.
But Government Minister Baroness Barran said: “The BBC is responsible for the over-75s’ licence fee concession, not the Government.
“The BBC Board is keeping the start date of their new policy for over-75s under review and has said it will announce its decision on any further delay to the changes to the concession in July.”
Lord Foulkes fumed: “That’s a totally unacceptable answer.
“Surely both the BBC and the Government have accepted, by postponing for two months, how vital television is for old people keeping in touch with vital information from the Government as well as entertainment and other information.
“Since many old people are being asked to be in lockdown indefinitely, surely it is not too much to ask the Government and the BBC to get together now to discuss postponing this withdrawal of the free TV licences also indefinitely.”
The Conservatives pledged at the 2017 election to protect free licences for the rest of that Parliament, which was due to run until 2022.
But the BBC had already been handed responsibility for funding the lifeline from June 2020, under a deal agreed in 2015.
It says keeping licences free for all over-75s would cost £745million by 2021-22.
The corporation is introducing restrictions, meaning only over-75s who receive Pension Credit will be eligible.
An estimated 3.7 million OAPs are due to miss out.
The Mirror is campaigning to save the benefit, with more than 18,000 readers backing the fight by completing coupons in the paper.
Lord Foulkes urged Baroness Barran to pledge that “the BBC and the Government will get round the table to discuss postponing this indefinitely”.
But she swerved answering, instead paying tribute to the “sacrifices” made by the elderly “during the past few months”.
The “responsibility” for funding free licences is “absolutely clear”, she insisted.
Labour’s Baroness Joan Bakewell, a broadcaster, said the Covid-19 pandemic “has emphasised more than ever the dependence of the over-75s on their television sets, particularly those isolating”.
Liberal Democrat culture spokeswoman Baroness Jane Bonham-Carter, a cousin of actress Helena Bonham-Carter, said the Government should “take back responsibility for the licence fee concession for the over-75s, introduced by a Labour government as something to be paid for by the Government and not by the licence fee payer, and which the BBC was, quite frankly, forced into taking on”.
Labour’s Lord Wilf Stevenson said: “This was a budget cut imposed on it by the Chancellor in a crude attempt to evade the Government’s statutory responsibility for welfare policy.”
Baroness Barran insisted the “BBC themselves regarded it as a good deal” when it formed part of licence fee settlement negotiations in 2015.
However, a BBC spokeswoman said last week: “The Government decided to end the free TV licence for the over-75s and gave the BBC Board responsibility to decide on its future.
“We consulted with the public and reached the fairest decision possible, to support the poorest oldest pensioners.
“We delayed the introduction of the new scheme until August as a result of the pandemic, and we are keeping that decision under review.
“During lockdown the BBC has played an important role informing, educating and entertaining all our audiences, including older people.
“The Board will announce its decision this month.”
Boris Johnson has previously urged the BBC to “cough up” and save free licences.