Like many people – including, it would seem, Labour shadow ministers – I was gobsmacked to learn, from a report in the Daily Telegraph earlier this month, that in 2012 more than 150,000 people were convicted of the criminal offence of TV licence fee evasion, and that ‘about 70 people a year are jailed for TV licence fee offences’. And what was most surprising, to me at least, is that those 150,000 prosecutions – some 3,000 a week – make up one in ten of all criminal prosecutions in the UK. Pic from Flickr of Old Phillips TV set under Creative Comms by William.
In fact, the maximum penalty for TV licence fee evasion, contrary to section 363 of the Communications Act 2003, is a fine of up to £1,000 (plus a criminal record, of course). According to some reports, the average fine is about £170 – that is, not much more than the licence fee, currently £145.50. So those ‘jailed for TV licence fee offences’ will in fact have been imprisoned for, and only after, failing to pay a fine previously imposed for licence fee evasion.
And I really shouldn’t have been unaware of these facts, because the issue has been widely reported over many years. In March 2012, for example, the Daily Mail noted that, whilst some 142,000 people – two-thirds of them women – were ‘given a criminal record and fined up to £1,000’ for licence fee evasion in 2010, ‘shoplifters, thugs and vandals are routinely given spot [civil penalties] of £80 and are not saddled with a criminal record’.
That report quoted the Magistrates Association as saying: ‘For almost 20 years we have been calling for changes in the law so that non-payment of TV licences is decriminalised.’
That decriminalisation now seems to be very much on the cards, with Labour last week supporting government amendments to the Deregulation Bill, which promise a consultation on making licence fee evasion a civil, rather than criminal, offence.
Deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman was reported as saying she believes ‘it is wrong to send people to prison for not paying for a television licence’. However, as the consultation will not start until the Bill has become law, and could then take up to a year, decriminalisation is unlikely to come much before 2017, when the BBC’s current Charter just so happens to be up for review.
But why stop there?
Decriminalisation would at least end the sending of people to prison for licence fee evasion, but for the vast majority of the some 400,000 people caught without a licence each year it would simply replace threat of a criminal conviction and fine with threat of a similar civil penalty and harassment by debt collection agencies. And there is one thing we can be sure of: the 150-200,000 who are prosecuted each year are all poor.
No one with both a reasonable income and a degree of common sense is going to risk a criminal conviction by persistently evading payment of £145.50 – the price of an evening out for the chattering classes. But to someone earning £240 per week on the national minimum wage, £145.50 is a lot of money. In short, the licence fee is an extremely regressive form of taxation.
What’s more, in the 21st century, having to have a licence to watch television is a bit like having to have a licence to shop at a supermarket, or call out the fire brigade. It may have made sense in 1946, when the TV licence was introduced, and only the most comfortably off could afford to buy a television.
But it really doesn’t make sense when the number of licences issued – some 25 million – is little different to the number of households. Add in the fact that it costs some £115 million every year to administer and enforce payment of the licence fee – more than half the £200 million the BBC says it would lose from decriminalisation through increased evasion – and the TV licence really starts to look like an historical anachronism in desperate need of being sent to the history books.
We have a perfectly good, progressive mechanism for raising revenue for public bodies: general taxation. And plenty of public bodies – not least the judiciary – manage to retain their independence from government despite being funded from general taxation. But if the fear is that future governments – and especially future Conservative governments – cannot be relied upon not to bleed the BBC and its ‘liberal bias’ to death with funding cuts, then let the BBC be part or fully funded by (voluntary) public subscription.
The emerging political consensus around decriminalisation is simply a cop-out. It wouldn’t lead to significant savings in the criminal justice system, as such cases are processed en masse so actually take up just 0.5 per cent of court time. And it wouldn’t stop poor people being harassed, threatened with (civil) court action and forced into debt in order that the chattering classes get their BBC on the cheap.
It’s time for Auntie to stop balancing her books on the backs of the poor.
Richard Dunstan is a policy wonk who has worked for Citizens Advice, the National Audit Office, the Law Society, and Amnesty International UK.