Criminal sanctions over the TV Licence fee can cause “considerable stress and anxiety”, in particular to “the most vulnerable”, therefore the Government is keeping the issue of decriminalisation under active consideration.
These statements were made this week in the Government’s response to a Commons Select Committee that looked into the future of public service broadcasting, after the committee called for the Government to hurry up and make a decision regarding TV Licence fee enforcement.
The TV Licence fee is used to fund the BBC, and currently stands at £157.50/year. Anyone who watches the BBC live, or via BBC iPlayer app, has to pay it.
Furthermore, if you watch any type of live TV from any broadcaster, you also need to pay the fee (See our full guide on whether you need to pay the TV Licence fee or not).
Last March, the cross-party Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee published a report that concluded that the TV Licence Fee needs to stay until 2038, because it’s the only viable method of funding the BBC at this time.
In addition, the committee criticized the Government’s stance on licence fee decriminalisation, and its failure to set a clear decision.
As it stands now, failure to pay the TV licence fee is a criminal offence, and evaders can end up paying a fine of up to £1,000 or even go to jail in rare circumstances.
“TV Licensing” found 174,416 people watching TV without a licence in 2019/20, and there were a total of 114,000 convictions of TV licence fee evaders in 2019. However, as of June 30 2020, there were zero people in prison for failing to pay the fine in respect of the non-payment of a TV licence in England and Wales.
In total, licence fee evasion in the UK currently stands between 6.5% and 7.5%.
Earlier this year, the Government was supposed to decide whether to decriminalise the licence fee, possibly handing over its enforcement to bailiffs. The Government then decided not to decide – something the committee was critical of in its report:
“It took the Government almost 10 months to respond to the consultation on decriminalisation of TV licence fee evasion. The issue of decriminalisation could be used as a bargaining tool by the Government during the ongoing licence fee settlement negotiations with the BBC and S4C, and thereby undermine one of the core principles of public service broadcasting: that it should be removed from Government interference.
“We call on the Government to provide assurances that the issue of decriminalisation will not be used as a bargaining tool during the ongoing licence fee settlement negotiations with the BBC and S4C.
“We also recommend that the Government conclude its further work on enforcement schemes, and publish its findings, by the end of the current parliamentary session.”
The Government Responds
This week, the government published its response to the committee’s report. In it, the government said it is still “considering decriminalisation of TV licence evasion and other possible reforms to the licence fee system”, to increase fairness.
Last year, the Government held an eight-week consultation on whether it should decriminalise TV licence evasion by replacing the criminal sanction with an alternative civil enforcement scheme.
A change would have meant that failure to pay the fee will be regarded as a “civil debt” – similar to not paying a utility bill, for example. The fines would then be enforced in the civil courts and by bailiffs, and those debts could also affect your credit rating.
A majority of responders to the consultation were against making changes to the current state of affairs – but the Government now says that many highlighted the potential mental health costs of the TV Licence fee criminal sanctions.
“Responses to the consultation”, the Government says, “showed that a significant number of people oppose the criminal sanction with some highlighting the considerable stress and anxiety it can cause for individuals, including the most vulnerable in society, such as older people.
“This is more strongly noted for those with particular protected characteristics and the most vulnerable, recognising the additional stress and anxiety it can cause.
“For example, people aged 75 and over now eligible to pay for a TV licence – following the BBC’s decision of 10 June 2019 to limit eligibility for free licences – may now face worry and stress about the threat of a criminal prosecution.”
Last year, there were TV Licence fee changes for the over-75s, as the government phased out subsidies the BBC was getting. Once the government decided to phase out those subsidies, it tasked the BBC with either paying for this exemption from their regular budget, or decide on a new scheme.
Therefore, starting last August, over-75s were no longer exempt from paying the licence fee, with the only ones still exempt are those who receive Pension Credit.
Normally, people who don’t pay the TV licence fee get enforcement letters, and possibly a house visit from TV Licensing inspectors. In March, however, BBC Director-General Tim Davie said that they’re “not sending any enforcement letters to older people who previously held a free licence”, at least for now.
Nevertheless, the Government is still taking decriminalisation under consideration:
‘It is one of many important issues that must remain an ongoing part of the Government’s wider roadmap for reform of the BBC, which also includes the ongoing licence fee settlement negotiations and the mid-term review of the BBC Charter.
“The Government may in future undertake a further, technical consultation on the possible alternative civil sanctions to set out in more detail how alternative schemes could work in practice.”
The Government also noted that “any future change to the TV licence sanction or enforcement scheme, should not be seen as an invitation to evade the TV licence requirement”, but that responsibility ultimately lied with the BBC:
“The BBC Board is ultimately responsible for ensuring that arrangements for the collection of the licence fee are efficient, appropriate and proportionate, which includes providing support for those aged 75 and over affected by the BBC’s changes to the over 75 concession.”