Published on 7 Mar 2014

Could backbench campaign lead to end of TV licence?

An interesting campaign is gaining ground at Westminster with huge implications for the BBC.

The Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen claims he has the support of 100 other MPs for an amendment he’s tabled to the deregulation bill to make it stop being a criminal offence to fail to pay the TV licence which funds the BBC.

Every year more than 100,000 people are convicted in the nation’s magistrates courts of watching TV without having bought a licence (in 2012 the figure was 181,880). And in 2012 TV licence prosecutions took up more than 12 per cent of all magistrates’ court cases. And between January 2011 and March 2013 107 people were sent to jail for failing to pay these fines (though in the 1990s the figures were far higher).

Lots of magistates hate dealing with TV licence cases.  Many of those convicted are extremely poor and often elderly (and about two-thirds are women). And it’s no excuse to say that you never watch the BBC. In 2012 the Magistrates Society called for the law to be changed, and for non-payment of the TV licence to become simply a civil offence, just like failure to pay a Sky subscription or a gas bill.

People walk past one of the entrances to

And now more than 100 MPs have joined the cause, and Andrew Bridgen is confident he can get the numbers who openly support his amendment up to 150. And those MPs don’t just include right-wing Tories such as David Davis and John Redwood, but also the former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ming Campbell and several other Lib Dems MPs, and several Labour left-wingers such as Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.

A fascinating coalition is being formed, with very worrying implications for the BBC. This alliance includes many Tories who detest the corporation, alongside people who think the current TV licence system is an unfair poll tax which hits poor people disproportionately.

Andrew Bridgen claims many people in the government, and in cabinet, are sympathetic to his cause.  The Justice Secretary Chris Grayling once worked for the BBC (as did one of his ministerial colleagues at the Ministry of Justice, Damian Green), but the Ministry of Justice must surely be attracted by the proposal as it would ease pressure on magistrates’ courts and save a lot of money.

This must all be highly worrying for the BBC. The TV licence is guaranteed until 2017, at a rate of £145.50 for a colour set.  That brings in around £3.6bn a year, but the fascinating question is how much of that virtually guaranteed income would be threatened if people knew they would no longer face a criminal record if they don’t pay.

And Andrew Bridgen has raised this issue at a time when many observers increasingly think it will be hard to sustain the licence fee system much longer. Is it still a rational way of paying for the BBC when there are many hundreds of non-BBC TV channels nowadays? The distinction between traditional television and the internet is increasingly blurred, as we saw with yesterday’s announcement by the corporation that BBC3, one of its main channels, is being switched to online in future.

Andrew Bridgen may not get his amendment to the deregulation bill, but he’s already given the idea significant political circulation. If the measure’s not included in legislation now, it could be an interesting proposal for the Conservative manifesto in 2015, and one way for the Tories to show they really are the “workers’ party”, as Grant Shapps claimed last week.

And if the Conservatives don’t adopt the idea, they may be trumped by others. Indeed, it’s already Ukip policy.

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6 reader comments

  1. Alan says:

    Whilst the licence continues to be depicted as paying for a channel to a corporation little will change. The license is for receiving a transmission irrespective of the BBC. The sum levied emanates from the government who appoint the board of governors for the governments state broadcasting arm. It’s time the charade ended. If the tax is to continue at least be honest about who is the originator. Too long have successive governments pedaled the myth of an impartial state appointed news organisation.

  2. Robert Taggart says:

    All power to Bridgen’s elbow !

    You broadcast journos will have to face the harsh truth eventually…

    If ‘Auntie Beeb’ be so beloved – her ‘family’ will happily pay for her upkeep – voluntarily – by subscription !

  3. Andrew Dundas says:

    BBC broadcasts around the world are a very important part of our foreign policy. Much more important than current government appreciates.
    Quality & impartiality relies on the high investment that the BBC’s news & innovatory productions that build the reputation of our Nation and help our trade. Ad spending on BBC takes funding from C4 & ITV.
    Advertising – the substitute for license fees – will diminish that willingness to invest heavily in news gathering and the UK’s internal and external culture.
    Some MPs want to emasculate the UK’s excellent broadcast media – incl C4 – to control public opinion and take revenge on BBC.

    C4 should show solidarity with fellow public broadcaster: we don’t want C4 to face even tougher competition just to satisfy our over-paid MPs !!

  4. RJ says:

    Haven’t had live TV for over a year now. stream everything I want to watch and use catch up services. I don’t need a TV licence and save myself £145 a year. A TV licence inspector cold called one day and ended up stalking angrily out of the house unable to catch me out (they work on commission).

    Thing is, when you genuinely pick and choose what you watch rather than just having it on because it’s there, you realise just how poor the BBC really is, especially the News. Technology is changing everything so much that the BBC is beginning to look like a relic. Clearly it has an important and cultural history that has shaped us all in some way. I can feel very nostalgic about it. However I can’t imagine how it is going to continue in anything like it current format in the long term.

    There is talk of charging for iPlayer. This seems reasonable. I wouldn’t be prepared to pay a licence fee for it, but would consider a pay per view format. Otherwise I could easily live without it as there are only a few things I would want from it (the BBC also sell it’s content on to streaming services, so could get it elsewhere). The only thing I would gladly and happily pay an annual fee for from the BBC is for radio services (but not £145 per year – £20 would be more like it).

    Recent scandals and payouts to executives and management have highlighted what an old boys network of greed and unaccountability (and waste) it is. The TV licence is a hefty tax and a regressive one. But mostly I think that the BBC News has lost any independence from being a government mouthpiece (despite it’s constant claims of impartiality).

    Also everything about Jeremy Vine is just plain wrong…

  5. tony says:

    According to Wikipedia, the tv licence started in 1946. At that time there was only the bbc, nothing else, not even ITV. Its 2014 now, we have 5 main channels, umpteen freeview channels , sky and others to choose from.

    CHOICE is the key word here. I chose to buy a freeview box for a one off payment of £25, I choose not to pay sky et al £40 a month for their services, but I have no choice in being charged £145.50 a year to be able to receive BBC programmes whether I watch them or not. I would be fined, imprisoned and have a criminal record if I didn’t.

    As well as funding trash like EASTENDERS , I am also providing a very comfortable life that I can only dream about for people who have a political agenda. If someone actually finds dawn French and lenny henry funny and the bbc news impartial then let them pay for it by other means, not a universal tv licence. Its a bit like me getting a bill from Moscow as I can watch “Russia Today”.

    While we have this system can it be re-named a BBC LICENCE, which is what it is.

    Does BBC1 and 2 really need to broadcast almost 24 hours a day? Is it paid to encourage people to sit at home in the daytime and vegetate, rather than to seek employment or at least do something more constructive with their lives rather than watching a television ?

    BBC 1 and 2 could broadcast eight hours a day from 4pm to midnight, just airing the best. So much of the other 16 hours of the day are filler, costing millions [billions?] over a year.

    Would anyone really miss zeinab badawi with the world news at 7pm ? When theres 24 hour bbc news why so much duplication ? Why cant bbc1 and 2 be news free.
    I also think by broadcasting just eight hours a day the licence fee could be reduced to £100 a year, no more.

  6. Frank Weyl says:

    The BBC is a left wing government institution and should be paid for by comunistic Labour and/or by the government. Why does the BBC starf need 157 Gardian news papers per day?
    The BBC is supposed to be independent of politics. The English public know better and as discussed on the net its a tax on hardworking people and the poor.
    We do not want the Hamstead luvvies taxing us.
    Thanks.

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