The decriminalisation of the BBC licence fee has been a staunch feature in the news over the last few months. Prime Minister Boris Johnson mentioned “looking at” the possible abolition of the BBC licence fee late last year. Since then, the “looking at” has developed into a government consultation into decriminalising TV licence evasion. Opened on the 5th February 2020, the government are seeking to determine whether a criminal sanction is still the most appropriate response to non-payment of the fee. In considering this, the government have stated that one objective of the consultation is to examine the potential impact on licence fee payers especially those who are most vulnerable and also those with protected characteristics.
This is not the first time that the penalty for non-payment of the licence fee has been discussed. Back in 2015, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) commissioned an independent review of TV licensing enforcement; this was led by David Perry QC (a.k.a. “the Perry Review”). Like the government’s current consultation, the Perry Review considered whether a non-criminal alternative enforcement scheme should replace the evasion fee. Ultimately, the Review concluded that there was “no compelling basis for change” – the cons of decriminalising non-payment would outweigh the pros.
UK-based research company, Enders Analysis, has recently taken a detailed look at the potential impact of decriminalising non-payment of the fee. In their report Decriminalisation of TV licence fee evasion, they revisit the points raised by the Perry Review. Although both a civil monetary penalty for evasion and treating the licence fee as a civil debt (recoverable through the courts) were suggested as alternatives, the Perry Review rejected both of these. Enders Analysis has reiterated that employing a different method to enforce the licence fee is not necessarily the solution as “it does nothing to change who is obliged to pay the licence fee, or the size of the amount they are required to pay”. Taking all factors into consideration, Enders Analysis has surmised that concern for the “disproportionate” impact of the licence fee on low-income households may not be the primary motivation behind the Government’s interest in decriminalising non-payment. Instead, Enders Analysis has put forward that the incentive may be more about reducing BBC funding or moving it to become a subscription-funded service. It suggests there are other policies that would better redistribute BBC funding, allowing it to flourish as a truly public broadcaster.
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