Sir Humphrey Appleby – perhaps the most outstanding civil servant of his or any other generation – famously included among his five basic rules of government: Never set up an inquiry or review unless you know in advance what its findings will be.
This is a dictum that the culture secretary, Sajid Javid, seems to be following with his recent announcement that he is accelerating a government review of section 363 of the Communications Act 2003, which makes TV licence fee evasion a criminal offence.
The review was first announced in March this year, after an attempt by the Conservative MP, Andrew Bridgen, to force a vote on immediate decriminalisation of the offence during consideration of the government’s Deregulation Bill. With the support of Labour shadow ministers, a government amendment to the Bill promised a review on making licence fee evasion a civil rather than a criminal offence, but only after the Bill becomes law. The Bill completed its passage through the House of Commons in June, and is currently at Committee Stage in the House of Lords.
However, in a speech to the Royal Television Society earlier this month, Javid revealed that the timing of the review is to be brought forward:
‘The Government is committed to launching a review of decriminalisation once the Deregulation Bill receives Royal Assent. But we can’t afford to wait that long. This needs to begin now.’
The culture secretary said he would be publishing the terms of reference for the review ‘very shortly’, and that he would expect it to ‘begin taking evidence in the autumn, and conclude early in the next Parliament.’ And, noting that ‘£145.50 is a lot of money for most people to find each year’, he left little doubt as to where he himself stands on the issue:
‘In 2012-13, almost 200,000 people ended up in court accused of not buying a TV licence. More than 50 were sent to prison [for defaulting on a fine imposed for licence fee evasion]. When over 10 per cent of Magistrate’s Courts cases concern this one offence, you have to ask whether the current system is really working.’
Clearly, the outcome of the review will not have Sir Humphrey turning in his grave. However, as I noted here back in March, the culture secretary’s ‘burden on Magistrate’s Courts’ point is a red herring. No less an authority than the Magistrates’ Association has made it clear that, whilst TV licence fee evasion accounts for 10 per cent or more of cases, those cases take up only 0.5 per cent of time, as they are processed on the papers and in bulk.
Like me, the Magistrates’ Association has a more fundamental and principled reason for favouring decriminalisation. In March, the Association’s chairman, Richard Monkhouse, told the Law Society Gazette that ‘criminalising people for not having a TV licence is a bit of a severe penalty, and where they go to prison it has a disproportionate impact’. (I myself would go further and abolish the TV licence altogether, as it is a grossly regressive tax that provides the chattering classes with their Auntie on the cheap, at the expense of the poor).
Rather than make a non-point about the administrative burden on the criminal courts, it would have been good to hear the culture secretary voice this more principled objection to the current system. But then another of Sir Humphrey’s famous dictums is that government is about principles. And the principle is, never act on principle.
Richard Dunstan is a policy wonk who has worked for Citizens Advice, the National Audit Office, the Law Society, and Amnesty International UK.