People trying to pay their TV licence on the website were met with the message “temporarily unavailable while we update it for the changes to over-75s licences” when they tried to log on. The site was down for maintenance on Friday night, according to reports in the Sunday Times. The BBC said there were always plans for the TV Licensing website to be offline on Saturday, with services resuming that night. A spokeswoman said: "It’s not true that the website crashed. It was always planned to be offline."
Three million over-75s will now be forced to pay £157.50 and could also be dragged through the courts and sent to prison has heightened demands that the government decriminalises non-payment.
Caroline Abrahams, charity director of Age UK, described it as a ”sad day for our older population".
She said: "This is a sad day for our older population, many of whom are feeling badly let down by both the Government and the BBC over the demise of these free licences."
Ms Abrahams said that "more than half a million of the poorest pensioners will still have to pay for a licence, cut spending on other essentials like food or heating, give up TV altogether or keep watching without a licence, in breach of the law" because they still do not qualify for pension credit.
"It is deplorable that any older person should have to make such a horrible choice.
Some over-75s have an income which "is just a few pounds or even pence too high to qualify them for pension credit, who will find another big bill too much to manage".
She said: "Many months ago we said that we thought the BBC's plan would turn out to be a 'slow motion car crash' and nothing that has happened since leads us to change our minds.
"As the disastrous impact of the BBC's plan on some of our 'oldest old' becomes apparent over the next few weeks, we hope this will bring the Corporation and the
Government back to the table, to find another way to keep TV free for the oldest in our society."
The free licences for over-75s had been due to end on June 1 but this was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.
However, from Saturday, August 1, viewers aged 75-plus, who currently qualify for a free TV licence, will now have to pay £157.50 unless they get Pension Credit.
Around 900,000 people receive the credit yet 600,000 more are eligible and don't claim it.
Age UK is "calling on everyone aged over 75 to see without delay if they are eligible for Pension Credit, if they haven't already done so."
The BBC agreed to take on responsibility for funding the scheme as part of the charter agreement hammered out with the Government in 2015.
But now it has said that it cannot afford to continue the universal entitlement, which would hit "programmes and services".
TV Licensing says it will write to all over-75 licence holders from August, outlining what action to take.
Campaigners of the National Pensioners’ Convention even took to the streets of London, Newcastle, Oxford, Norwich, Liverpool, Irvine and Belfast to protest against the
General secretary Jan Shortt said: "The free TV licence for all over-75s is a universal entitlement to supplement our poor state pension.
"To force people to find the money to pay for it now, particularly during the pandemic when they rely on their TVs for information, is just cruel.
"That is why the fittest and healthiest of our older members will put on their masks and gloves, and pop sanitiser in their pockets, to join static and socially distanced demonstrations countrywide."
A BBC spokeswoman said "it was the Government that ended funding for over-75s TV licences" and that the "BBC has made the fairest decision possible to support the poorest, oldest pensioners".
She added: "Critically, it isn't the BBC making judgments about poverty - the Government sets and controls pension credit.
"The decision to start the new scheme in August has not been easy but delaying the introduction has cost the BBC over £70 million and we cannot afford to delay any further.
“In order to make the 75+ Plan available for customers online, the TV Licensing website was temporarily offline on Saturday as was always planned. The important point is that over 75s don’t need to do anything until they receive a letter from TV Licensing, which will contain clear guidance on what to do. The information line on 0800 232 1382 was available across the day.”
"Continuing with the Government scheme would have cost £745 million a year and rising" and would have meant the closures of BBC Two, BBC Four, the BBC News Channel, the BBC Scotland channel, Radio 5 Live, and a number of local radio stations
"These closures would profoundly damage the BBC for everyone, especially older people who use the BBC the most.
“Our focus is now on making the transition as easy as possible for all older people. Over 75s households will be given plenty of time to set up their licence and can do so safely without leaving home.
“For those who currently receive a free TV licence but have to pay from August 1, we're introducing a new plan so they can pay safely in smaller, more flexible instalments."