The Solicitor - The FindLaw UK Life, Family and Workplace Law Blog

MPs back plans to decriminalise non-payment of TV licence fee

A majority of MPs in the House of Commons have voted to support proposals by the Government to decriminalise the non-payment of the Television Licence fee as part of a bill that could become law later in 2014, reports the BBC.

MPs were asked to vote on an amendment to the Deregulation Bill that is currently being considered by Parliament. The amendment would see non-payment of the TV Licence fee become a civil rather than a criminal offence.

The TV Licence fee was introduced back in 1946 and was levied by the Government to pay for the services of the British Broadcasting Corporation, or BBC. The original licence fee was £2 for a monochrome television set, which is around £70 in modern money.

During the past 65 years the fee has steadily climbed, with hikes implemented during changes of technology, such as the supplement for colour televisions, which doubled the fee from £5 to £10 in 1968.

At present the licence fee generates over £3bn in income which goes a long way towards providing the £5bn total budget for the BBC overall.

TV Licensing

TV Licences are required for any device installed or used for the receipt of television programmes at the same time as they are broadcast to the public. Essentially this covers receipt of transmissions of live programming. As a result, a licence is needed to watch live television even on a laptop, but recorded programmes, such as those on the BBC's iPlayer service, require no such licence.

The BBC estimates that around 5% of people who watch live television programmes do so without a Television Licence. This is a criminal offence according to s.363 Communications Act 2003.

According to widely quoted figures, non-payment of the licence fee makes up around 10% of time in Magistrates' Courts, although the BBC dispute that figure, claiming that it is as low as 0.3% because many of the cases seen by magistrates are quick to process.

Civil or criminal

Despite the threat of criminal sanctions and the relatively high number of offenders each year, the reality is that very few people go to prison for licence fee evasion. In fact, just 51 people were sent to prison in 2012 for licence fee evasion.

The vast majority of cases result in a fine of up to £1,000 being levied, with prison reserved for those who have repeatedly offended, failed to pay a fine or who refuse to pay the fine.

If successful the new law will make non-payment of the licence fee a civil matter, removing the threat of prison from those who cannot afford to pay their licence fee. It is understood the Government is now lobbying the BBC to come up with new ways to prevent people from accessing content if they have failed to pay their licence fee.

The BBC Strategy Director is James Purnell.

"We are happy to work with Government to see if it can be improved or whether there is an alternative that could be better," he said.