Possible imprisonment for refusing to pay the TV licence fee is to remain, as the government takes decriminalisation of the licence fee off the table – at least for now. The government, however, “remains concerned” that criminal sanction is “unfair”, and will revisit the issue in the future.
The decision was published by the government this week, following an eight-week long consultation in which a majority of responders were against making changes to the current state of affairs.
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 the BBC iPlayer app, has to pay it.
Furthermore, if you watch any type of live TV from any broadcaster (even international ones), you also need to pay the fee (See our full guide on whether you need to pay the TV Licence fee or not).
As things are 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 get sent to jail by the courts, if they don’t pay the fine.
“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 (up 3% from 2015).
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.
Nevertheless, alarming data from the Ministry of Justice was published recently, showing that 74% of all those convicted of TV licence fee evasion in 2019 were women, usually for the simple fact that they were more likely to be at home when the inspectors came knocking.
TV Licence Decriminalisation – The Government Decides To Wait
Last February, Boris Johnson ordered a review of the BBC licence fee, with its possible cancellation or decriminalisation on the table.
The public consultation closed in April 2020, and the results have been debated since. As we reported last month, the government was already on track to postpone its decision for at least two years, and this week, the official response has been published.
The consultation asked whether the government 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 your energy 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.
There were 154,478 responses to the consultation, including from 81 organisations including the BBC.
Among individual responders, 17,652 were for decriminalisation and 19,199 against. From campaign groups, there were 18,869 for and 92,831 against.
In its response, the government says that it “remains concerned that a criminal sanction is increasingly disproportionate and unfair in a modern public service broadcasting system.”
However, the government wants to ensure that any future changes to the TV licence sanction or enforcement scheme are not seen as an invitation to evade the TV licence requirement, nor privilege the rule-breaking minority over the rule-abiding majority.
Therefore, decriminalisation will be considered alongside the licence fee settlement negotiations that began last November. The negotiations will set the level of the licence fee for a period of at least five years from 2022 and will provide the context within which any future decision on decriminalisation will be taken.
The government has agreed to maintain the current licence fee funding model until 2027 – when the current Charter period ends.
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, who already spoke against decriminalisation in the past, said:
“A criminal sanction for TV licence evasion in the digital media age feels outdated and wrong, and many who responded to our consultation agreed.
“Whilst the delivery of decriminalisation right now is problematic, we intend to keep looking at this as we negotiate the next Licence Fee settlement and push for the reforms at the BBC that the new leadership has recognised are needed.”