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UK consults on decriminalising TV licence evasion

February 5, 2020

By Colin Mann

The UK Government has opened a public consultation on whether it should proceed with the decriminalisation of TV licence evasion by replacing the criminal sanction with an alternative civil enforcement scheme.

The Government believes that it is right to look again at decriminalising TV licence evasion in order to ensure a proportionate and fair approach to licence fee penalties and payments is in place, which protects the most vulnerable in our society.

The consultation will seek responses on whether to decriminalise evasion and give consideration to how this could happen. The determining factors that the Government will consider include:

  • Would an alternative, non-criminal enforcement scheme be fairer and more proportionate?
  • What the cost is and how difficult it would be to implement any alternative scheme?
  • What is the potential impact on licence fee payers, particularly the most vulnerable and those with protected characteristics?
  • And what is the overall impact on licence fee collection?

Writing an Opinion Piece in the Daily Mail, Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan notes the emergence of streaming players such as Netflix, Amazon, Google and Apple and that people now spend three times as much time watching subscription services such as Netflix than they do BBC iPlayer.

“I believe, no matter how well-funded these international streaming giants are, UK public service broadcasters are vital,” she stated. “We need our national broadcasters to bring people together, to reflect our common values, and to showcase these values to the world,” she said, recognising the breadth of the BBC’s output – from radio and TV to podcasts and online. “But the pace of change is fast. Broadcasters which do not remain relevant will find themselves left behind by viewers. So we need to think carefully about how the BBC – and indeed public service broadcasting more generally – can stay relevant in the years ahead,” she said.

“As we move into an increasingly digital age, where there are more and more channels to watch and platforms to choose from, it is clear that many people consider it an anachronism that you can be imprisoned effectively for not paying for your TV licence,” she declared, suggesting there remain “legitimate concerns” that the criminal sanction for TV licence fee evasion is unfair and disproportionate.

According to Morgan, accountability and value for money for taxpayers must be at the heart of how the BBC is funded. “That’s why we have made the BBC be more transparent about what it pays its highest-earning stars. Our mission is to help public service broadcasters be better prepared to meet the challenges of the digital age,” she advised. “We make no apology for being bold and ambitious. As the world around us changes, our laws must change too. It will require the BBC to be innovative and to move with the times.”

DCMS Committee Chair Elect Julian Knight MP said: “Today’s announcement from the Government which could see an end to people getting a criminal record for not buying a TV licence marks a significant shift in the broadcasting landscape, with major implications for the future of the BBC.

“With negotiations on its funding due to start later this year, there’s a need for an urgent and open conversation about how people consume media and how they should pay for it.

“As Chair I’ll be urging the DCMS Committee to take the lead on steering the BBC towards a new and sustainable funding model which ensures the most vulnerable in our society do not lose out.”

The BBC said that a detailed government-commissioned review (in 2015) had found the current system to be the fairest and most effective.

“It did not recommend change – in part because the current system is effective in ensuring payment with very few people ever going to prison.

“If there are changes, they must be fair to law-abiding licence fee payers and delivered in a way that doesn’t fundamentally undermine the BBC’s ability to deliver the services they love.”

Under the Communications Act 2003, a TV licence is required to install or use a television receiver. Everyone in the UK, and the Crown Dependencies, who watches or records television from any provider as it is broadcasted, and/or who watches content on BBC iPlayer, whether it is on television sets, computers or other devices, is required to be appropriately licensed. The Government has committed to the TV licence model and the circumstances under which a TV licence is required for the rest of the current Royal Charter (the Charter) period, which will end on 31 December 2027.

Currently, a person who installs uses a television receiver or watches content on BBC iPlayer without a TV licence is guilty of a criminal offence. This is known as TV licence evasion. TV licence evasion in and of itself is not an imprisonable offence and will not lead to a criminal record in most cases. However, non-payment of the fine imposed, following a criminal conviction, could lead to a risk of imprisonment.

The BBC, operating under its trademark TV Licensing, is responsible for collecting and enforcing the TV licence. It uses a range of methods to encourage people who require a TV licence to purchase one; it says that imprisonment is a ‘last resort’ option for the court where all other methods of enforcement have been unsuccessful.

The Government expects that any changes to the enforcement of the TV licence would take effect in the upcoming licence fee settlement period. This is sceduled to begin in April 2022 and last for a period of at least five years. The Government will, therefore, work closely with the BBC and TV Licensing to ensure that any changes will be delivered in a manageable and efficient manner. The Government will consider the future of the TV licence model ahead of the next Charter.

This consultation will be open for a period of eight (8) weeks. The Government will then consider carefully the responses and expects to publish a response by summer 2020. Subject to the findings of this consultation, the Government may need to consult further on the detail of any potential changes to the current enforcement model before taking a final decision.

The closing date and time for responses is 5pm on April 1st 2020.

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