As published in the Daily Mail:
150 MPs back call to stop prosecution of TV licence fee dodgers
A total of 150 MPs are backing a campaign to stop the BBC prosecuting viewers in a criminal court if they fail to pay the TV licence fee.
As the revolt against the corporation’s draconian powers gathered momentum, the Government said yesterday it was giving careful consideration to a proposal to turn non-payment into a civil offence.
The law change would mean the 180,000-plus people taken to court each year for not paying the £145.50 charge would no longer face a criminal record, fines of up to £1,000 and a potential prison sentence.
Yesterday, the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, expressed sympathy with those who feel it is unfair to criminalise viewers who are too poor to pay for their licence and say it should be collected in the same way as gas bills or Sky subscriptions.
He told the Commons he has had discussions with Culture Secretary Maria Miller and the Cabinet Office and would raise the matter with the BBC.
Tory MP Andrew Bridgen has tabled an amendment to existing legislation that could reform the law within months.
It would delete references in the 2003 Communications Act to licence fee evaders being guilty of an offence’ and say they are liable to a civil penalty’ instead. In theory, the amendment could be put to a vote in Parliament as early as next Tuesday, although it is thought to be unlikely to succeed unless the Government openly supports the proposal.
A petition in favour of the change has been signed by 150 backbenchers from all three main political parties, including former Conservative chairman David Davis and former Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell.
Mr Bridgen, who will discuss the plans with BBC strategy chief James Purnell today, said last night: Given the level of support around the House, the time is ticking down for decriminalisation. It is now a matter of when and how, not if.
At present, the BBC is alienating the very people it is supposed to serve by threatening them with jail. People who don’t pay the licence fee should not be treated as criminals. Often they are old ladies who are too poor to pay it. The way the BBC implements collection is heavy handed and authoritarian, and I believe it is resented by a large proportion of the population.’
At present, one in nine cases in magistrates’ courts is a licence fee prosecution, and around 50 people a year are sent to jail for refusing to pay the fines imposed for evading the charge.
The BBC has insisted it has to threaten viewers with criminal prosecution or they will stop paying.
The broadcaster’s head of corporate and public affairs, Andrew Scadding, wrote to MPs urging them not to support the law changes, which he claimed would cost the BBC an extra £200million a year.
If non-payment was turned into a civil offence, he said, the BBC would need to install technology in TV sets allowing it to switch off access to those who do not pay.
However, Tory MP Angie Bray, who sits on the culture, media and sport committee, said: The BBC should… try to understand why people are so angry.
It is preposterous that the BBC is sending people to jail. There is no reason it can’t collect its money in exactly the same way as any other company.’
A BBC spokesman said: 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 ten local radio stations.’