TV licence decriminalisation consultation opens

Lawrence Kim
February 5, 2020

Anyone watching or recording TV programmes as they are shown on TV, or watching or downloading BBC programmes on iPlayer, needs to be covered by a licence.

The Culture Secretary said that in the age of subscription services such as Netflix, Sky and Amazon, ministers must "think carefully" about how the licence fee could fit into "this changing media landscape".

Ahead of a speech on Wednesday, Baroness Morgan said many people thought it wrong that "you can be imprisoned for not paying the TV licence and its enforcement punishes the vulnerable". At the time, he said the current system is "fair and proportionate", as well as providing "good value for money".

The consultation will also look at the viability of an alternative enforcement scheme.

If they want to pay for their licence fee in instalments, they now have to pay for their first licence over the course of six months, but from April they will be able to spread the cost over 12 months.

Last year, Treasury minister Rishi Sunak said the Prime Minister Boris Johnson had ordered a review of the sanction for non-payment of the £154.50 charge, which funds the BBC.

Baroness Morgan has questioned whether the TV licence fee can remain "relevant" in the multi-channel era as she fired the first shots in a battle with the BBC over its future funding.

The price change will not now have an impact on the free over-75s TV licence.

In a statement, the BBC said "a detailed government-commissioned review (in 2015) found the current system to be the fairest and most effective".

Aiming to avoid the inevitable media onslaught against the rise, the BBC was quick to note that the new fee equates to just £3.02 a week and that in the last financial year 95% of the BBC's controllable spend went on content for audiences and delivery, with just 5% spent on running the organisation. The government will not challenge the existence of the licence fee itself, which is guaranteed by the BBC's royal charter until 2027.

Ministers acknowledged that any change would inevitably result in a reduction in income for the national broadcaster - requiring further cuts to its output - but suggested that it was unfair to pursue individuals through the criminal courts if they watch live television without subsidising the BBC. Three-quarters of those prosecuted are women, potentially because they are more likely to be at home during the day when licensing officers call, while five people in England and Wales were ultimately sent to prison for failing to pay a fine issued by the court.

However, it recommended against changing the criminal sanctions regime, saying decriminalisation could bring with it an increased risk of evasion.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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