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Government steps up war with BBC as it moves to decriminalise licence fee evasion

3 min read

The Government will set itself on a fresh collision course with the BBC by taking the first steps towards decriminalising people who don’t pay their TV Licence.

Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan said many people believed the current system - which can see licence fee dodgers sent to jail - "punishes the vulnerable" and is ripe for reform.

But the Corporation warned that decriminalisation of non-payment could end up costing it millions of pounds.

It is the latest round in a battle between the BBC and the Government, with both sides already at odds over plans by the broadcaster to stop providing free TV licences to the over-75s from June.

Meanwhile, Downing Street has banned ministers from appearing on Today, Radio Four's flagship current affairs programme.

As part of a public consultation on the licence fee, Baroness Morgan also announced the Simple Payment Plan to help people struggling to pay it. 

At present, using a TV without a valid licence can lead to prosecution, a court appearance and a fine of up to £1,000. If they fail to pay that, they can be sent to prison.

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

Baroness Morgan said: "As we move into an increasingly digital age, with more and more channels to watch and platforms to choose from, the time has come to think carefully about how we make sure the TV licence fee remains relevant in this changing media landscape.

"Many people consider it wrong that you can be imprisoned for not paying for your TV Licence and that its enforcement punishes the vulnerable.  

"Today we are launching a public consultation to make sure we have a fair and proportionate approach to licence fee penalties and payments, that protects those most in need in society."

There were around 26 million TV licences being used in the UK last year, which generated an income of £3.69billion for the BBC.

A spokesman for the corporartion said: "Of course we’ll respond to the consultation whenever it is published, but the Government has already commissioned a QC to take an in-depth look at this matter and he found that ‘the current system of criminal deterrence and prosecution should be maintained’ and that it is fair and value for money to licence fee payers.

"The review also found that non-payment cases accounted for ‘a minute fraction’ - only 0.3% - of court time.

"Decriminalisation could also mean the BBC has hundreds of millions of pounds less to spend on programmes and services for audiences."

Shadow Culture Secretary Tracy Brabin said: "The future of the BBC is under serious threat from this Conservative government.

"Decriminalising non-payment of the licence fee will leave the corporation without a predictable income and potentially hundreds of millions of pounds short. The BBC as a public broadcaster is highly valued and something we should fight to protect."

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