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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