UK Politics

MPs back moves to decriminalise TV licence fee non-payment

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Media captionMarcus Greenhouse ended up in court when he forgot to pay for his TV licence after his wife's death

MPs have backed plans to give the government power to decriminalise non-payment of the TV licence fee.

They voted in favour of an amendment to the Deregulation Bill, which could become law later this year, proposing a subsequent review of non-payment penalty options.

Ministers could then decide to move to a system of civil penalties, probably around the summer of 2015.

The BBC has said possible financial losses could cause channels to close.

The corporation, which has said it fears losses of up to £200m a year, said it would fully co-operate with any review to see if the current system could be improved.

The move has already got government backing, and Labour has signalled its likely support.

The BBC understands that the Labour Party is calling for a system of civil penalties to be piloted before any decriminalisation change is implemented.

Currently, people can be sent to jail in connection with not paying the annual licence fee, which is used to fund BBC programmes and other output.

Under the proposals, ministers would be allowed to replace existing sanctions with "civil monetary penalties" with no further act of Parliament required.

'Not a threat'

Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen, who has led calls for a change in the law, told a committee scrutinising the bill that people were getting a criminal record "for the only crime of being poor".

The BBC, he argued, should see the move "as an opportunity not a threat" and a means of "reigniting" its links with licence fee payers rather than "subjugating" them.

Speaking at the same meeting, Labour MP Kelvin Hopkins said he backed the move but that any impact on the BBC's funding and its independence must be taken into account.

Chancellor George Osborne said the idea of decriminalisation was "very interesting" and would be looked at "closely".

The BBC's strategy director James Purnell said the present system "works pretty well" and warned the proposed change would be a "huge risk" which would increase instances of non-payment.

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

Earlier this month, Mr Purnell warned BBC channels could close if non-payment of the licence fee was decriminalised.

Imprisoned

The bill is currently at the committee stage and faces several more parliamentary phases before it can become law, likely to be this summer at the earliest.

A review of how a civil penalty would work would then have to be completed before it comes into force, probably in the summer of 2015 after the general election.

A TV licence, which is required if a user watches or records live broadcasts on any device in the UK, currently costs £145.50 per year.

Those who refuse to pay face a fine of up to £1,000 as well as the prospect of jail if fines are not paid.

The Ministry of Justice has said that 164,932 people were found guilty of TV licence evasion in 2012 and 51 went to prison for not paying subsequent fines.

Currently civil penalties can be used for other issues such as if a person does not report a change in their circumstances which entitle them to claim benefits, and as a consequence end up getting overpaid. In this instance offenders are likely to be landed with a minimum £50 fine.

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