The Government has said that “it is right to look again” at the criminal offence for TV licence evasion, to ensure a “proportionate and fair approach” to licence fee penalties. On 5 February 2020, the Government launched a consultation on decriminalising TV licence fee evasion. The consultation was not a commitment in the Conservative Party’s 2019 election manifesto, but during the election campaign Boris Johnson did question the long-term future of the licence fee

The Government has committed to the principle of the licence fee for the rest of the current BBC royal charter period, which ends on 31 December 2027. However, the consultation seeks views on making licence fee evasion a civil, rather than a criminal, offence. 

The BBC has argued in favour of keeping the current system of enforcement. It has estimated that decriminalising evasion could cost it £200 million a year in lost revenue

The licence fee is not a payment for BBC services, although the revenue is used to fund the BBC. Approximately 90% of revenue goes towards funding the BBC, with the remainder funding other local TV channels and infrastructure, such as broadband rollout. 

What does the law say? 

Under part 4 of the Communications Act 2003, it is a criminal offence to use television receiving equipment without a licence to view or record live programmes on any channel, including online streaming of live programmes. You also need a licence to view or download programmes on BBC iPlayer. Licence fee evasion is not itself an imprisonable offence—conviction is punishable by a fine of up to £1,000. Non-payment of a court-imposed fine can, in some cases, lead to imprisonment. 

2015 Perry Review

In 2014, the Coalition Government commissioned an independent review of the TV licence enforcement regime, chaired by David Perry QC. The final review set out arguments for and against the criminal sanction. In broad terms, the arguments were: 

Arguments against: 

  • it is a disproportionate use of the “coercive powers” of the state;  
  • it stigmatises those who cannot pay; and  
  • a disproportionate number of prosecutions are brought against vulnerable groups and those on low incomes.  

Arguments for: 

  • evasion places a financial burden on licence fee payers; and  
  • the public has an interest in the quality of programmes and broadcasting services, and the criminal sanction reflects the importance of this public interest.  

The review also argued that “decriminalisation would not necessarily lead to the removal of imprisonment as a matter of last resort: imprisonment is available for non-payment of statutory civil debts, such as council tax”. The main finding of the review was that there should be “no fundamental change” to the enforcement regime, as it stood for “a broadly fair and proportionate response to the problem of licence fee evasion”. 

How many convictions, fines and imprisonments are there each year? 

On average, approximately 169,000 people a year were convicted of TV licence evasion between 2010 and 2018. The average fine imposed was £173. 

The number of convictions has prompted debate about the way TV licence fee payment is enforced. In 2017, there were allegations that Capita, the firm used to undertake enforcement visits, was using aggressive practices to target vulnerable people.  

There have also been concerns about the gender disparity in the number of prosecutions. The figures in table 1 show that since 2010, over two-thirds of those prosecuted were women.  

Table 1: TV licence fee evasion prosecutions, convictions, and average fine, 2010–2018

  2010  2011  2012  2013  2014  2015  2016  2017  2018 
Total Prosecutions  164,450  170,645  193,049  178,354  185,621  190,336  172,957  138,698  129,446 
—of which female (%)  67  67  67  69  70  70  71  71  72 
Total Convictions  142,380  149,236  164,932  153,385  162,869  166,695  152,713  129,245  121,203 
Average Fine (£)  171  169  169  170  171  173  184  174  176 

(Source: Ministry of Justice, Criminal Justice System Statistics Quarterly, December 2018: Outcomes by Offence Data Tool, 16 May 2019) 

A 2017 TV Licensing report on the gender disparity found that, while there was no evidence of direct discrimination, women were more likely to be prosecuted because: there were more single-adult female (included lone parent) households than single-adult male households; women were more likely to be at home when enforcement visits took place; and they were more likely to “engage positively” with enforcement officers. 

Data on the number of people imprisoned for non-payment of a fine imposed for TV licence evasion shows a significant decline in recent years compared to the 1990s. In that decade, hundreds of people a year went to prison for non-payment. Table 2 shows the figures for the last five years. 

Table 2: Number of people imprisoned for non-payment of a TV licence fee evasion fine

2014  2015  2016  2017  2018 
14  23  21 

(Source: House of Commons, ‘Written Question: Television: Licensing’, 28 October 2019, 2679)

Could there be an impact on the over-75s? 

The BBC has announced that, from 1 June 2020, only those aged over 75 and in receipt of the pension credit benefit will be entitled to a free TV licence. This has provoked debate as to whether more over-75s could be at risk of imprisonment for non-payment of their TV licence.  

Free TV licences for those aged over 75, paid for by the Government, have been available since 2000.  

In 2015, the Conservative Government decided, as part of its fee settlement agreement with the BBC, that the corporation should take on responsibility for funding the free licences by 2020. The BBC has estimated that the current system costs approximately £745 million a year.  

Responding to the launch of the Government’s consultation, Caroline Abrahams, director of the charity Age UK, said that whether the legal consequences of non-payment were criminal or civil was “immaterial”. Instead, the charity was concerned that abolition of free licences could result in some of the most vulnerable over-75s “inadvertently breaking the law”.  

The Government has stated that it is disappointed with the BBC’s decision to restrict free licences to those receiving pension credit and that it believes all licences for the over-75s should be funded by the corporation. The Ministry of Justice recently stated that, since 2014, no one over 75 had been imprisoned for TV licence fee evasion. 

The House of Lords is due to debate the contribution of the BBC to the UK economy on 5 March 2020. The consultation ends on 1 April 2020. 

Image: Stux from Pixabay