It will no longer be a criminal offence to refuse to pay the TV license fee, under plans currently being considered by Ministers. Currently, anyone failing to pay the licence fee who watches live television at home faces a fine of up to £1,000 together with a criminal record. Those who fail to pay any fines given by a Magistrates Court ultimately face the possibility of a custodial sentence.
More than 100 MPs are now supporting a change in legislation which would make non-payment of the annual £145.50 charge a civil penalty as opposed to a criminal offence. This would mean those who fail to pay would not be given a criminal record, although penalties, including potential fines, would still apply.
According to the recent statistics approximately 70 people a year are imprisoned for licence fee offences. However, the scale of prosecutions for licence fee evasion is far higher and now accounts for one in nine of all Magistrates Court cases. More than 180,000 people appeared before the Magistrates Courts in 2012 with 155,000 being convicted and fined. The figure has been rising in recent years as TV Licensing, which is responsible for catching “evaders”, has adopted a tougher approach. Ministers are now concerned at the huge burden these cases place on the criminal courts.
Mr Grayling, the Justice Secretary, said:
“The Culture Secretary and I both agree that this is a really interesting idea – particularly given the pressure on our courts system. Our departments will be doing some serious work on the proposal.”
Tory MP, Andrew Bridgen, has tabled an amendment to the Deregulation Bill, which is going through Parliament, intended to change the legislation. More than 100 MPs support the amendment, which Mr Bridgen argues would benefit families struggling to afford the licence fee because the law as it stands is “criminalising them for being poor”. He wants non-payment to be treated in the same way as parking tickets. He commented:
“For those in real hardship who cannot pay the television licence fee, the current legislation is effectively criminalising them for being poor, which cannot be right,” he said.
“I and many colleagues feel that the non payment of the TV licence being a criminal offence is disproportionate.
“The current funding arrangement for the BBC is a Poll Tax and is one of the most regressive forms of taxation. Most of those sent to prison as a result of non payment are the elderly and women and this serves no purpose and the huge associated costs are borne by the taxpayer.”
However, the reform will be fiercely resisted by BBC executives, who argue that it will increase licence fee “evasion” and lead to a significant fall in the funding available for the broadcaster. A BBC spokesman said:
“Legislation is a matter for the Government, however changing the law could lead to higher evasion. Just a 1 per cent increase in evasion would lead to the loss of around £35million, the equivalent of around 10 BBC Local Radio stations.”