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TV Licence Non-payment: Women

Volume 836: debated on Tuesday 5 March 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the number of women who have been prosecuted for non-payment of the television licence in the past two years.

My Lords, the BBC is responsible for the collection and enforcement of the licence fee and it has undertaken a review of the disparity between the sexes in prosecutions for TV licence evasion. His Majesty’s Government remain concerned about the fairness of the criminal sanction for TV licence evasion and its disproportionate impact on women. That is why the issue will be considered in the BBC funding model review.

I thank the Minister for that. He will realise that about 1,000 people a week are prosecuted for non-payment of their licence—of whom 70% are women. Recently, the use of the single justice procedure with one magistrate has meant that the mitigating circumstances are often not heard. The magistrate may even be sitting at home. The elderly, the disabled and the poorest are most likely to be prosecuted. Capita gets £456 million from the BBC for the use of its investigators, most of whom are on a bonus pay scheme, dependent on how many prosecutions they get. Does the Minister not agree that it is time to decriminalise the non-payment of the BBC licence fee, as the Government promised on many occasions before the last general election?

It is important to emphasise that licence fee evasion is not an imprisonable offence the maximum sanction is a fine of up to £1,000. But the noble Baroness is right to point to the disproportionate impact it has on women. As I said, the Government remain concerned that a criminal sanction for licence evasion is increasingly disproportionate and unfair in our modern public service broadcasting system, which is why we will look at the matter as part of the future funding review.

My Lords, some 90% of 18 to 24 year-olds stream their content instead of watching TV channels. What does my noble friend the Minister see as the future of the BBC licence fee to a generation growing up with subscription-based services?

My noble friend is right. The uptake of TV licences has fallen by around 1.7 million from its peak of nearly 56 million in 2017. As people consume media in different ways, the model looks increasingly obsolescent. That is why, as part of the future funding model, we want to ensure that we are giving the BBC and our public service broadcasters the funding they need to continue to produce programmes that are much admired for an audience which consumes television in different ways.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the BBC is taking steps to try to lessen the effect of this through its newly proposed scheme of spreading out payments? Will the Government assist the BBC in collecting its revenue, so that it can carry on producing the programmes that most of us are still watching?

Yes. I commend the work that the BBC has done: it commissioned a gender disparity review, with which I believe the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Hornsey, from your Lordships’ House, helped assist. We welcome the 10-point plan that the BBC has set out, flowing from that review, but we will look more broadly at the issue of criminal sanctions as part of future funding.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former BBC TV producer. The BBC has previously said that decriminalising licence fee evasion and switching to a civil system would cost it more than £1 billion over five years. Does the Minister agree that this would lead to huge cuts in programming and a big hit to an already struggling creative economy?

No. We want to look carefully at the issue of how we make sure that the BBC continues to get the funding that it needs to produce the wonderful programming that is much admired. But, in light of the trend that I have outlined, in which fewer people are buying a licence fee in the first place, of course we will make sure that we speak to the corporation as part of that review—but we are doing so with its best interests in mind.

My Lords, it is not just the withdrawal of free TV licences for the over-75s that hurts women the most; numerous other government policies are anti-women. For example, real wage cuts in the public sector hurt women the most, as most of the workforce is female. Other examples include the gender pay and pension gaps, the two-child benefit cap, real cuts in benefits and lower state pensions for women. Can the Minister explain why the Government do not assess the gender gap of all their policies?

The Government are committed to making sure that everybody—men and women—can reach their full potential and play their full part in our society and economy. We bring forward policies to try to make sure that everybody can do that. In this instance, I am glad that the BBC has looked at the gender disparity, recognising the impact of licence fee sanctions on women—and the Government have set out their thinking on that, too.

My Lords, when I was fined for refusing to pay the television licence fee by Hastings magistrates’ court, I observed that all the other people being charged were single mothers and wondered why that would be. Does the Minister think that it could be to do with the very fact that they are vulnerable? That is to say, they are in the same place—they cannot escape from the place where they live—and can be easily caught; therefore, they are what officials call “low-hanging fruit”.

The noble Lord is right: women make up around 75% of people prosecuted for TV licence evasion. As the overall number of prosecutions has fallen, the number of women and vulnerable people affected has also fallen. But, as my right honourable friend the Secretary of State outlined, we are very concerned about the appropriateness of a criminal sanction in these matters, and we will look at this as part of the BBC’s future funding review.

My Lords, with the collapse in the funding model underpinning local newspapers and the closure of so many local newspapers, does my noble friend agree with me that it is vital that the BBC continues to invest in the local democracy service, particularly local radio stations, to hold to account local decision-makers throughout the country?

Yes, the BBC does very important work through the Local Democracy Reporting Service. Local radio stations provide hugely important information and news to their local communities, as I set out in our Second Reading debate on the Media Bill, where I know we will talk about these important matters further.

My Lords, is it not the case that at present we are seeing an increase in the amount of propaganda that comes from areas such as GB News? Can the Minister assure us that the BBC will be left with the revenue needed to counteract that, and the problems of social media as well?

Ofcom, not the Government, regulates the provision of news, whatever channel people receive it on. The BBC receives some £3.8 billion in licence fee income; that income allows it to provide its important and impartial news, both at home and around the world.

My Lords, this is indeed a troubling and concerning matter. Does the Minister think there is a case for moving the licence fee to a monthly payment, paid by standing order, in line with other broadcast subscriptions? At the moment, that would mean a payment of £13 per month.

The Simple Payment Plan does help people pay the television licence fee at present. As I say, we are looking at all the ways in which the BBC might receive its funding in the future, taking into account the declining number of people paying for a licence, but looking at all options to make sure that it has the revenue it needs to continue doing the work for which it is much admired.

My Lords, the Government have known for some time about this injustice of the prosecution of a majority of women rather than men. Why are they not doing something about it faster, and when will the BBC review actually report?

The Government consulted on decriminalisation of TV licence evasion in 2020, and we published our response in 2021. The appropriate time to make this decision is as part of the BBC funding model review, when we can look at the way we can get the sustainable funding for the corporation that everyone wants to see.

My Lords, the urgency with which people are suggesting this is looked at is not helped by the fact that we are going through a very serious financial time and it is likely that there will be more, not fewer, people in this difficult situation. First, can the Minister take note of what the original Question said—that there is a danger of this being abused by private companies that are incentivised to prosecute women in this situation? Secondly, we are spending a lot of time doing the Victims and Prisoners Bill—well, some of us are—and it seems so wrong to criminalise people who are vulnerable and victims. This has got nothing to do with BBC bashing; it has everything to do with recognising that women are being discriminated against unfairly for something which, given the scale of the problems facing society, the Government should really just deal with now.

I hope I can reassure the noble Baroness that the number of women being prosecuted is falling. In the year ending June 2022, 35,000 women were prosecuted; in the year ending June 2023, 29,000 were. So the number is coming down, but the disparity between the sexes is indeed stark, with women still making up around three-quarters of people prosecuted. That is why we are glad the BBC has looked at this and has set out actions, and why we are looking at it as part of our future consideration of how the BBC should be funded.