According to various official bodies, 204,003 people were prosecuted or fined in 2014 for TV licence offence (4,905 people in Northern Ireland, 12,536 in Wales and 173,044 in England, 13,486 cases disposed of via an out of court fine in Scotland and 32 prosecuted via the courts.) Putting these numbers in perspective, it would appear Wales is the country with the most prosecution per capita. It’s also worth noting that 9 out of 10 areas with the most suspected TV licence evaders are in England, whereas 9 out of 10 areas with the least prosecution are in Scotland.
One thing is clear: over 70% of caught TV licence evaders are female. The BBC assures us that women are not deliberately targeted. But as TV Licence officers will take a statement from any responsible person living at an address without a valid TV licence, therefore, the logical explanation for the gender disparity is quite simple: women are a) more likely to be at home, taking care of children for example b) more trusting and willing to open the door when a cold caller comes and c) more willing to correct their situation when prompted.
Even if the majority of convictions are pronounced in the absence of any defendant, an astonishing number of the prosecutions that are commenced by the BBC do not result in conviction. Freedom of Information Requests show that 1,188 people were wrongly prosecuted of committing a TV licence offence in Wales last year. This means a failure rate of 9.4%. In England, 12.4% of cases were either dropped or withdrawn by the BBC, or people were not found guilty. More worryingly, over 1 in 4 cases failed in Northern Ireland last year. These numbers of ‘unsuccessful’ prosecutions lends weight to the view that cases are initiated on a speculative basis where it is hoped by the BBC that people will plead guilty or won’t contest the prosecution. This surely is a scandalous abuse of the courts’ process by the BBC.
The maximum fine for TV licence offence is £1,000. The actual amount awarded should represent between 25% and 125% of the evader’s weekly income. I guess one needs to be a premier league player to be fined £1,000.
The average fine is therefore relatively low, hovering between £70 (Jersey) and £170 (England and Wales). But, considering that less than 35% of TV licence fines are actually recovered, it would appear that prosecuting people is a long way away from being a profitable business.
TV licence evasion is not punishable by a period of imprisonment per se. It’s only when convicted evaders refuse to pay the fine they were ordered to pay, or are incapable of paying it, that a period of imprisonment may be imposed as a “last resort”. This, however, is an all-round lose/lose situation: the BBC gains nothing in the way of monies and it costs the tax payer an average of £95 per day to keep one person behind bars. This estimate is based on a disclosure from the Ministry of Justice that it costs £34,766 per annum to house a UK prisoner. The length of stay is decided by the amount owed. For example, a debt not exceeding £200 could secure a 7 day stint in prison, whereas a debt not exceeding £1,000 secure up to a 28 days stay.
Considering that 39 people were given an average of 20 days for fine default in relation to TV licence offences in England and Wales in 2014, each stay is likely to have cost tax payers close to £2,000, bringing the combined total to an eye watering £74,000. The situation in Northern Ireland, at least up to 2012, was even more appalling with over 200 imprisonments each year. A Judicial Review led to a temporary suspension of fine defaulters being sent to prison, putting a stop to the unsustainable practice of giving jail time for non-payment of outstanding fines of as little as £5. Now, fine default warrants are apparently only being issued if the defendant is already in prison serving a sentence or if he or she lives outside the jurisdiction. Only one person was sent to jail, for 7 days, in 2014. Thankfully, there were no custodial sentences imposed during the last five years in Scotland and Jersey, which shows a great dose of common sense and progressive thinking.
The British parliament proposed decriminalising the offence once and for all, but unfortunately the proposition was turned down by a House of Lords vote by 178 to 175 in February 2015. This is curious because the Lords actually recommended the offence be decriminalised in their 2005/2006 BBC Charter renewal paper.
Studies have shown that the perceived likelihood of being caught, rather than the formulation of the law itself has the best deterrent effect. Therefore, the act of changing the TV licence offence from a criminal one to a civil infraction should not increase the evasion rate by itself. Behavioural research conducted for the BBC found that if the TV licence was decriminalized and the £1,000 fine was replaced by a a civil penalty of over £300 was set, evasion rates would stay at the current 5%. This is amazing news, but what the BBC and the current government want is a 0% evasion, as, deep down, they firmly believe that everyone saying they don’t tune in to the BBC each week is a liar. And this is why they believe a household levy, (i.e. a flat tax forcing everyone to pay for the BBC regardless if they own a TV) would be fairer than the current flat tax that only applies to those who watch live TV. But what they forget, is, short of being a totalitarian state, TV licence evasion is unavoidable.
A large portion or Europe, Asia and Africa fund their public broadcasters with a TV licence, in one form or another. Prices in Europe go from £40 per year (Poland) and £255 (Norway). But funding a public broadcaster doesn’t have to be through a TV licence as many countries such as Canada and the United States never enforced a TV licence. Also, a substantial amount of countries abolished their TV licence. To name only few: Australia (1974), New Zealand (1999), Netherlands (2000), Belgium (2001), Iceland (2007) and Finland (2013).
The UK appears to be the only country, with Ireland, who thinks that non-payment of the licence fee should be a criminal matter. I think the question “How is this coercive funding method perceived by the rest of the world and how does it reflect on the BBC and the British society?” should be dwelled upon.
Other questions burning my lips includes “Has the BBC become a dogma where people should not be allowed to opt out of it?” and “Can’t we make good television using only money freely given?”
Since “making moving pictures” is clearly not a case justifying a coercive system, a petition, called “End the BBC Licence Fee”, has been created to give the public a voice on the future of the licence fee. It has already been signed by over 165,000 people and it was translated into Polish and in Malayalam. It was recently mentioned in the Daily Mail, as well as over 20 different local newspapers in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The petition can be signed here https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/end-the-bbc-licence-fee
It’s important to raise awareness on this and to get the TV licence payers involved in the process, for the first time ever.
Caroline Levesque-Bartlett is a legal editor who summarises civil judgements for a Reuters owned publisher. She also teaches French part-time. Originally from Quebec, she now lives in the UK.