(The following are excerpts and quotations from parliamentary discussions on the debate for decriminalisation of the BBC licence fee or taken from interviews.)
It [the TV licence fee] is probably the most regressive tax in the UK today.
At its extreme, it is criminalising people simply for the crime of being poor and that should never be a crime.
Imagine the condemnation if the BBC had learned of a banana republic introducing a poll tax on its citizens, irrespective of income, for them to be able to have access to television. Imagine also that that poll tax was enforced by the threat of prison sentences that disproportionately saw women with children detained by the state. Well, there is no need to imagine that scenario, because that is exactly the position in this country.
On the “Unique Way of Funding”
While gas, electricity, water, telephone and pay TV suppliers have to use the civil system to recover their funds, we continue to let the BBC enjoy the luxury of having the state act as its debt collector. That special status only serves to fuel an arrogance and sense of entitlement at the BBC and distances the corporation from the very people it is there to serve.
On the Consequences of the Criminal Sanctions
James Purnell, director of strategy and digital at the BBC—whatever that means—has gone on the record as saying that the current system of licence fee and enforcement and criminalisation, in his view, “works pretty well”. Well, it may work pretty well for Mr Purnell, who is on £295,000 a year of taxpayers’ money, and his chums, but I do not think it works pretty well for the 182,000 people who are dragged through the magistrates court, and it certainly does not work pretty well for the 51 people who went to prison. Although the BBC is trying to downplay the impact on the courts system of prosecuting for non-payment of the TV licence, there is no doubt that the impact is considerable. The BBC is the biggest criminaliser of the public on a regular basis in the UK—responsible for one in nine of all magistrates’ cases. The average cost of keeping a prisoner in prison is about £1,000 a week. A disproportionate number of [people who go to prison as a result of the legislation] are women—50%, whereas women make up only 4% of the prison population. Many of those prosecuted are single mothers. Retention of the law comes, then, at a substantial human and financial cost.
On Changing the TV Licence Fee
I believe that the BBC needs to look at this as an opportunity, not a threat, and as a chance to reignite that linkage with the people it is there to serve, rather than subjugating them and forcing them to pay a tax. It is my belief that [the] protected and privileged status that the BBC has enjoyed for so long is not its saviour and salvation, but instead has allowed it to become distant and remote from, and in some cases despised by, the very people it is supposed to serve. The BBC thinks that the licence fee is their life jacket but it’s the anchor that is actually pulling them down.
In England and Wales, more people are imprisoned each year for the non-payment of fines associated with TV licensing than are prosecuted for evasion in Scotland, with little, if any, difference in the evasion rate.
The BBC has been saying, in very emotive language, that even a 1% reduction in its income will result in the removal of 10 local radio stations. This was later ramped up to saying that the BBC might lose £200 million a year, leading to the axing of CBBC and CBeebies—clever media management from the BBC, using the most emotive channels and options, rather than, for instance, using the amount written off by the digital media initiative, when the BBC wrote off £100 million of taxpayers’ money. The comments of the BBC are, to me, symptomatic of an organisation that is showing no interest or desire to move away from the licence fee model backed up by law on criminalisation. I can understand that no organisation or private company that is having its income stream protected by the threat of criminalisation would ever want to give that up.
On freezing the licence fee
If the BBC has had such a tough financial settlement and it can no longer go on with a freeze on the licence fee, can [it] explain why the number of managers—not staff, but managers—who work for the BBC and are paid more than the Prime Minister has increased by 10% in the past 12 months?
On the Future
In March 2014, Andrew Bridgen said “We will perhaps have a wider debate about the future of the BBC at some point.” That moment might be just around the corner.
Later that month, he said [Decriminalisation of the BBC licence fee evasion] “will happen, I’m convinced of it and I will drive it through … it’s a matter of how and when. What I’m going to try to engineer is that whatever happens at the next charter review, criminalising people for non-payment of it [the licence fee] will not be on the table.”
Andrew Bridgen and Caroline Levesque-Bartlett, September 2015