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TV licence fee non-payment: decriminalising the offence

Published Wednesday, November 4, 2015

At present, using a television receiver without a valid licence can lead to prosecution, a court appearance and a fine of up to £1,000. Should it cease to be a criminal offence? Some parliamentarians think so. The BBC thinks not. An independent report has looked into this and recommended no change.

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At present, using a television receiver without a valid licence can lead to prosecution, a court appearance and a fine of up to £1,000. In some cases, where there is a refusal to pay the fine and where all other enforcement methods have been tried or considered, a person can be sent to jail for non-payment of a court-imposed fine.

In spring 2014 it emerged that there was strong support among parliamentarians for decriminalising the offence of failing to pay for a TV licence where one is required. Two new clauses were added to the Deregulation Bill at Committee Stage in the Commons:

  • One new clause requires the Culture Secretary to carry out a review of the sanctions for licence fee non-payment, looking at the option of switching to a civil penalty system of fines, within three months of the Bill being passed.
  • The other clause introduces a new power for the Secretary of State, through secondary legislation, to change the sanctions that apply to the failure to have a TV licence. The power provides for the sanctions to be changed either by replacing the criminal regime with a civil regime, or by creating a civil regime as an alternative to prosecution for such offences.

The clauses were approved by the Commons Committee without a division. At Report stage in the Lords, a cross-party amendment was successfully tabled providing that there should be no move to decriminalise non-payment of the fee before 2017. A similar Government amendment was added to the final version of what is now the Deregulation Act 2015.

In September 2014 the then Culture Secretary announced an independent review into sanctions for non-payment. A public consultation ran alongside this from February to May 2015. The Review, led by David Perry QC, was published and laid before Parliament in July 2015. Its principal recommendation was that the current system of criminal deterrence and prosecution should be maintained for as long as the existing system of licence fee collection is in operation.

The present Culture Secretary responded that, as the Perry Report would play a central role in the debate, he did not propose to make regulations under the Deregulation Act 2015 at present. Instead, the issue would be considered as part of the BBC Charter Review which is now underway.

For its part, the BBC has warned that the change would have an adverse effect on funding for its services by encouraging evasion and could cost it up to £200m in lost revenue. The Corporation has, however, signalled a willingness to discuss decriminalisation as part of negotiations over the renewal of its royal charter which are due to take place in 2015-16. The BBC’s position was set out at length in its response to the 2015 consultation. In this document the Corporation reaffirmed its opposition to decriminalisation while offering several proposals of its own.

Commons Briefing papers SN06860

Author: Philip Ward

Topics: Broadcasting, Civil law, Criminal law

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