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Licence fee decriminalisation inches closer

TV Licence dodgers could swap criminal fines for harrassment by bailiffs if culture secretary Sajid Javid’s plans for decriminalisation go through.

Non-payment of the TV Licence fee is currently a criminal offence with the threat of prison if you don’t pay the fine, but a civil penalty would see non-payers pursued by bailiffs and a County Court Judgment on their credit history.

Javid said that one in 10 magistrates’ court cases deal with TV Licence non-payment, although these are usually dealt with in bulk and account for only a small amount of the courts’ time.

The review of the law was first announced in March, when backbench MP Andrew Bridgen put forward the amendment. He said the penalties for not paying to use the BBC’s services would need to be reduced to address those who are simply too poor to pay.

If you don't pay the TV licence, you may be let off going to court if the decriminalisation happens
If you don’t pay the TV licence, you may be let off going to court if the decriminalisation happens

Javid told the Royal Television Society Conference: “In 2012/13, almost 200,000 people ended up in court accused of not buying a TV licence. More than 50 were sent to prison.

“The government is committed to launching a review of decriminalisation once the Deregulation Bill receives royal assent. But we can’t afford to wait that long. This needs to begin now.”

Women are more than twice as likely as men to be prosecuted for not paying the £145.50 colour TV Licence, with 85 per cent of alleged non-payers found guilty and almost all ordered to pay a fine and court costs.

Non-payment of the licence fee is pursued by TV Licensing on behalf of the BBC, not the Crown Prosecution Service, and around only half of those who TV Licensing catches not paying the fee end up in court.

A BBC spokeswoman responded: “This is an important issue and the review must be thorough and not rushed. Licence fee evasion is low, which maximises investment in the programmes and services that audiences love.

“Changing the system could lead to higher evasion, so it’s important that any decisions are made as part of the charter review process. We look forward to working with the review.”

Shortly before Bridgen put the proposals forward, the BBC managed to get an extension on the debate, arguing that is will lose a lot of revenue if evaders didn’t pay their bill.

The BBC says that if the punishment for not paying is reduced, fewer people will pay the fee and even a one per cent increase in licence fee evasion would equate to a £35 million loss for the broadcaster.

We’re not sure whether an interest-free court fine would be preferable to being pursued with the Terminator-style determination of a civil debt collection agency and a black mark on our credit history.

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