UK Government to ‘Keep Looking’ at Decriminalising TV License Evasion

UK Government to ‘Keep Looking’ at Decriminalising TV License Evasion
A BBC sign is displayed outside the BBC headquarters in Portland Place, London, on July 2, 2020. (Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images)
Lily Zhou

Criminal sanctions against TV licence evasion are recognised as being “increasingly disproportionate and unfair,” the UK government said on Thursday in response to a public consultation on the matter.

However, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport said that decriminalising licence evasion is “problematic,” so it “remains under consideration.”

“The government remains concerned that a criminal sanction is increasingly disproportionate and unfair in a modern public service broadcasting system,” it said in a statement.

“However, it wants to ensure that any future changes to the TV licence sanction or enforcement scheme are not seen as an invitation to evade the TV licence requirement, nor privilege the rule-breaking minority over the rule-abiding majority.”

Decriminalisation of TV license evasion will be a part of discussions to set the 2022–2027 licence fee with the BBC, which is primarily funded by the fee.

“Whilst the delivery of decriminalisation right now is problematic, we intend to keep looking at this as we negotiate the next Licence Fee settlement and push for the reforms at the BBC that the new leadership has recognised are needed,” Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said.

Criminal sanctions would be replaced with civil enforcement measures that have yet to be determined, but would need to be “sufficiently robust” to dissuade people from evading the licence, and could end up more costly for those caught without a licence.

The eight-week consultation from Feb. 5 to April 1, 2020, revealed “significant opposition” to criminal sanctions over TV license evasion. But the majority (75 percent) of the 155,000 respondents were against decriminalisation, a large proportion coming from campaign groups.

The most common concern was that decriminalisation would have negative financial impact on the BBC.

“Defund the BBC”, a campaign group opposed to criminalisation of TV licence evasion, said in a string of tweets, that it’s “a massive understatement” to say the criminalisation of TV license evasion is disproportionate and unfair.
It said that enforcement disproportionately affects women, with “72% of prosecutions“ being women, because the “BBC’s method of policing licence fee payment traps the person most likely to answer the door between 9am and 5pm: women, the unemployed, and vulnerable.”

The group also accused the government of prosecuting the vulnerable to save the BBC.

“The government is hiding behind the threat of bailiffs, despite the fact they can’t demand to inspect your home or send threats without proof of money owed,” the campaign said in a tweet.

“In truth, they’ve actively chosen to continue discriminatory prosecution of the vulnerable to save the BBC.”

Residents in the UK are required to purchase a TV licence if they watch or record programmes on a TV, computer, tablet, mobile phone, or any other device that can receive a TV signal. A TV licence is also required for downloading or watching BBC programmes on iPlayer.
The cost of a licence, which covers all devices in a household, is £157.50 ($215.30) per year. Failure to pay for a licence can result in a fine up to £1,000 ($1,367). According to the government, while evading the TV licence in and of itself is not an imprisonable offence and will not lead to a criminal record, “non-payment of the fine imposed for TV licence evasion, following a criminal conviction, could lead to a risk of imprisonment.”

According to the government, 174,416 people were found watching TV without a license in 2019/20, and the current evasion rate is between 6.5 and 7.5 percent.

There was no one in prison for TV license evasion in England and Wales as at June 30, 2020, the government said. Around 91 people have been given custodial sentences from 2015 to 2018 in England and Wales.