Here's what the Government's TV licence decriminalisation consultation could mean for you

Wednesday, 5th February 2020, 1:07 pm
Updated Wednesday, 5th February 2020, 1:10 pm
A Post Office television detector van in 1970

Just a day after it was announced the cost of the annual TV licence fee is set to increase by £3 from 1 April 2020, people who refuse to pay the licence fee could no longer face the threat of prison.

Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan launched a public consultation into Government plans - which could cost the BBC £200m a year and lead to channel closures - over the sanctions for evading the licence fee on 5 February.

The BBC believes the review is certain to recommend decriminalisation of non-payment of the licence fee, a move backed by Boris Johnson.

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In December, Johnson said he was "looking at" abolishing the licence fee.

The Prime Minister questioned whether the funding format for public service broadcasters "still makes sense", adding: "I think that the system of funding by what is effectively a general tax, isn't it, everybody has a TV, it bears reflection - let me put it that way."

The threat ramps up the battle between the BBC and a hostile Downing Street, which has barred Cabinet Ministers from appearing on the Today programme.

Here's everything you need to know about it:

What's the current punishment?

Everyone in the UK who watches live or recorded shows, including through the BBC iPlayer, on TV sets and other devices, must pay the licence fee.

Prosecution for non-payment of the fee can currently end in a court appearance and a potential fine of up to £1,000. Anyone who refuses to pay the fine faces jail.

In 2018, more than 121,000 people were convicted and sentenced for evasion and issued with an average fine of £176.

But in a speech to the Policy Exchange think tank on 5 February, Morgan said: “Many people consider it wrong that you can be imprisoned for not paying for your TV licence and that its enforcement punishes the vulnerable.”

Just five people in England and Wales were jailed for repeated refusal to pay a licence fee court fine in 2018.

So will the BBC essentially be free?

The Government will consider alternative enforcement methods for non-payment, using civil sanctions.

Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s top aide, has previously called for the “end of the BBC in its current form” and wants the broadcaster to introduce Netflix-style subscription payments.

Baroness Morgan said that a “fair and proportionate approach to licence fee penalties and payments, that protects those most in need in society” will help ensure that the “TV licence fee remains relevant in this changing media landscape.”

Bailiffs could remove television sets from people who refuse to pay the licence fee, under plans being considered by the Government as an alternative to criminal prosecutions.

One proposal in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport document is to treat the TV licence fee as a “civil debt recoverable through a money claim in the civil courts”, like an unpaid council tax bill.

“The enforcement methods available would depend on the value of the debt and the court used, but they could include taking control of goods by enforcement agents (bailiffs), the use of attachment of earnings orders and charging orders,” the document said.

A 2015 Government review into decriminalisation found that evasion levels would likely increase under a civil system, meaning less money for programmes for people who do pay their licence fee.

What would it mean for the BBC?

Once the threat of criminal sanctions is removed, the BBC fears that many more households will avoid paying the licence fee altogether, further diminishing the £3.6bn it currently receives from the levy.

A BBC spokesman said: “A detailed Government-commissioned review found the current system to be the fairest and most effective. It did not recommend change - in part because the current system is effective in ensuring payment with very few people ever going to prison.”

The BBC said any major changes to its income should be considered as part of the next licence fee settlement.

Baroness Morgan admitted that decriminalisation “would have an impact on BBC funding”. This would be taken into account when a new licence fee deal is renegotiated in 2022.

How much does the license fee cost now?

The cost of the annual TV licence fee is set to increase by £3 to £157.50 from 1 April 2020.

The fee is set by the Government, which said in 2016 that it would rise in line with inflation for five years from April 2017.

According to the BBC, the new cost equates to £3.02 per week, or £13.13 per month, for households.

Last year the BBC announced that it would end the concession for older viewers this summer and make free licences means-tested instead.

Only over-75s in receipt of the Pension Credit benefit will eligible from June 2020.

Campaigners have warned the fee is too expensive for some older people, with Age UK saying the charge is roughly the equivalent of three months' worth of gas or electricity bills.

This could leave over-75s unable to afford to watch the television and result in loneliness and isolation, according to the charity which is calling on the BBC to overturn its policy.

This article originally appeared on iNews