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Television Licence Evasion

Volume 809: debated on Tuesday 26 January 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to introduce legislation to decriminalise television licence evasion.

My Lords, the Government’s response to the consultation states that

“decriminalisation will remain under active consideration while more work is undertaken to understand the impact of alternative enforcement schemes.”

We remain concerned that a criminal sanction for TV licence evasion is increasingly disproportionate and unfair in a modern public service broadcasting system. However, we recognise that changing the sanction would have wide-ranging impacts for licence fee payers and has the potential for significantly higher fines and costs for the small minority who evade.

My Lords, I am glad that the Minister repeated what the Secretary of State said last week—that he remained

“concerned that a criminal sanction for TV licence evasion is increasingly disproportionate and unfair in a modern public service broadcasting system.”—[Official Report, Commons, 21/1/20; col. 48WS.]

How then can the Minister possibly justify the continued harassment, intimidation and bullying by Capita of the many elderly, vulnerable households just trying to survive in the midst of a pandemic? Is it not time that the Government recognised that older people are turning off the BBC, younger people have never even turned it on, and the licence fee itself represents a bygone age and should be abolished and replaced by a choice-based alternative?

The noble Baroness covers a number of points. On her first point, I absolutely sympathise with the issue she raises, although we have to recognise that the BBC is independent in the way that it enforces and collects the licence fee, and that levels of evasion are the lowest in Europe.

My Lords, as so often, the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, is right. I am glad that the Minister agrees that a criminal sanction, including cases of imprisonment for TV licence evasion, is disproportionate. Does she agree that it is regrettable that we live in an age where some 91 people have been given custodial sentences for failing to pay fines in respect of the non- payment of TV licences in recent years, and that a change to a civil penalty system should take place now, rather than wait until the licence fee review is completed?

The figures that my noble friend refers to—the 91 people receiving a custodial sentence—are for the period 2015-18, and those numbers have declined significantly in recent years. In relation to a civil sanction, it needs to be sufficiently robust to underpin the legal requirement to hold a TV licence, and, as I mentioned, it might result in higher financial penalties. We are keeping this matter open for further review.

My Lords, in recent times we have seen a rapid decline in the funding of one of our greatest achievements as a country, admired and envied the world over: British public service broadcasting. Over the past 15 years, investment in original UK production has been cut by 30%. Does the Minister accept that addressing this massive decline should be top of the agenda when the BBC’s licence fee is soon reviewed?

The noble Lord makes an important point. In the review of the licence fee—which, as he knows, we are committed to until 2027—a very wide range of issues will be taken into account, including, of course, the importance of our independent production sector. As he understands better than I, it has been enormously successful and vibrant, thanks to a great deal of other investment as well as that from the BBC.

My Lords, can the Minister say why on earth the Government intend to keep decriminalisation under consideration in the 2022-27 licence fee discussion? This is really perverse, since the Perry review said the current system of sanctions is “fair and proportionate” and that civil-based systems were not a viable alternative. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of those consulted recently opposed it. Does the Minister not agree that this is a distraction from the important reform agenda that the BBC is adopting?

The noble Baroness is right that there is a very important reform agenda. In their responses, the general public were roughly split evenly; those reporting through campaign groups were definitely —though I see the noble Baroness is shaking her head —in favour of the status quo. But we will not allow this to distract us; there is a great deal of effort going into looking at the current reform programme at the BBC.

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that it is time to stop raiding the BBC licence fee for worthy causes when such actions do irreparable damage to the BBC’s capacity to maintain its support of our creative industries? Would the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, and the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, not be better employed supporting the charity StepChange in its campaign to have Clause 34 in the upcoming Financial Services Bill 2019-21, which gives statutory support and advice to those who get into debt?

My Lords, there is no raid going on of the BBC; quite the reverse. We are working towards much more transparency around the licence fee settlement and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has written to the director-general of the BBC asking for a breakdown of spend against the five charter purposes, so that we can work with a transparent and clear focus.

My Lords, last week’s announcement heaps uncertainty and unfairness on the BBC as it keeps the threat of a further loss of revenue in play, instead of following the clear message from the recent consultation and the Perry review that the current system is the most effective of the available options. Can the Minister confirm that no further action will be taken in this area until agreement has been reached between the Government and the BBC on the licence fee level for the remainder of the charter period?

Perhaps it would help if I quote directly from the Government’s response to the consultation in relation to the noble Lord’s valid and important point. We said that:

“The government considers that a future decision on decriminalising TV licence evasion would benefit from a clearer picture on the wider drivers of BBC income in the face of market and other trends.”

So, we need a rounded picture of those issues on which to take a decision.

Do the Government agree that legislation decriminalising TV licence evasion would, in practice, render paying for a licence optional and constitute a halfway house towards getting rid of the licence?

I do not entirely agree with my noble friend but he is right that it risks sending the wrong signal to the very small minority who seek to evade payment. We feel that it is more constructive to look at ways in which the BBC can support those on low incomes to pay the licence fee.

Can the Minister confirm that the DCMS response to the decriminalisation of the licence fee found that, as of 20 June 2020, there were zero people in prison for failing to pay the fine in respect of non-payment of the TV licence in England and Wales? Can she also confirm that the National Debtline advice to people who do not pay fines is that only in the most serious cases of non-payment and after every avenue is exhausted can a judge then send them to prison?

The noble Viscount is right —my notes say 30 June rather than 20 June, but we will not argue about that. In relation to his second point, that is absolutely correct; about 0.6% of those non-payers were prosecuted, which is the lowest in Europe.

I call the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon. Lord Morris? No, he is not here. I call the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath.

My Lords, over the last few months the Rupert Murdoch-owned radio station talkRADIO has been using its broadcasting licence to wage war against the BBC licence fee and its collection. Last week saw a particularly egregious example, which was blatant and inaccurate propaganda, designed to pursue commercial self-interest. Does the Minister agree that if it is to maintain its reputation as the guardian of impartiality and accuracy in broadcasting, Ofcom should investigate and act?

The noble Lord is right that it is absolutely Ofcom’s responsibility to address issues such as the one he has just raised.