As published in The Daily Telegraph:
Dodging TV licence will not be a crime;
Failure to pay TV licence to be a civil matter
People who do not pay the TV licence fee will no longer be prosecuted in a criminal court, under radical plans being drawn up by the Government.
The failure to pay the annual £145.50 fee would become a civil matter, meaning those who fail to comply will not be lumbered with a criminal record.
More than 180,000 people are currently prosecuted each year and face a potential prison sentence for not paying the licence fee.
The number of people taken to court means that licence fee infringements account for one in nine prosecutions in Britain every year.
Now more than 100 back-bench MPs from all the major political parties are supporting a change in the law that would make non-payment of the charge a matter for the civil courts, rather than a criminal offence.
This would mean nobody who fails to pay could be given a criminal record, although penalties, including fines, would still apply.
The Daily Telegraph can disclose that Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary, and Maria Miller, the Culture and Media Secretary, both support the proposal.
They want to ease the burden on Britain’s already busy court system. Changing it to a civil matter would also bring licence fee prosecutions into line with other non-payment matters such as failure to pay utility bills and parking tickets.
MPs also say it will stop the criminalisation of people who are simply “too poor” to pay the fee. There are fears, however, that the proposed change would encourage more people not to pay the fee.
Mr Grayling, the Justice Secretary, told The Daily Telegraph: “The Culture Secretary and I both agree that this is a really interesting idea – – particularly given the pressure on our court system.
Our departments will be doing some serious work on the proposal.”
Teams of Whitehall officials will begin developing detailed proposals for how to bring about the change in the law.
However, the reform will be fiercely resisted by BBC executives, who argue that it will increase licence fee “evasion” and lead to a significant fall in the funding.
According to the most recent figures, about 70 people a year are jailed for TV licence fee offences. But the overall scale of prosecutions for evasion is far higher and now accounts for one in nine of all magistrates’ court cases.
More than 180,000 people – – almost 3,500 a week – – appeared before magistrates’ courts in 2012, accused of watching television without a valid licence, with 155,000 being convicted and fined. The figure has been rising in recent years as TV Licensing, which is responsible for catching “evaders”, has adopted a more determined and effective approach.
The reform could become law within months as a growing number of backbench MPs support an amendment to the coalition’s Deregulation Bill, which is currently passing through Parliament.
The amendment would delete references in the 2003 Communications Act to licence fee evaders being “guilty of an offence” and state instead that individuals who refuse to pay the charge will be “liable to a civil penalty”. The level of any fine would be determined by the government of the day, under the plan.
The amendment has been backed by 101 MPs from all the major parties, including Sir Menzies Campbell, the former Liberal Democrat leader, David Davis, a former Tory shadow home secretary, and Frank Dobson, Labour’s former health secretary.
Andrew Bridgen, the Conservative MP for North West Leicestershire, who tabled the amendment, said the wide support his proposal had received showed that the Government should support it.
“For those in real hardship who cannot pay the television licence fee, the current legislation is effectively criminalising them for being poor, which cannot be right,” he said.
“I and many colleagues feel that the non payment of the TV licence being a criminal offence is disproportionate. The current funding arrangement for the BBC is a poll tax and is one of the most regressive forms of taxation. Most of those sent to prison as a result of non payment are the elderly and women and this serves no purpose and the huge associated costs are borne by the taxpayer.”
Government sources said ministers were considering whether it would be possible formally to support Mr Bridgen’s amendment when it comes to a Commons vote. However, a source at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport said Mrs Miller would prefer to wait until the BBC’s Charter, which determines its funding, is renewed in 2017 before changing the law. The source said: “The Culture Secretary supports the idea in principle but the timing of this issue is vital.”
A BBC spokesman said: “Legislation is a matter for the Government, however changing the law could lead to higher evasion. Just a 1 per cent increase in evasion would lead to the loss of around £35million, the equivalent of around 10 BBC Local Radio stations.”