The Culture Secretary has suggested TV licence fee evasion won’t be decriminalised because he does not want to send a signal that it is legitimate to not pay the TV licence.
Oliver Dowden made the comment to MPs as the Government prepares to publish its response to a consultation on decriminalisation.
It had been reported the Government was considering decriminalisation of non-payment and bringing it under the scope of ‘civil debt’, much in the same way non-payment of utility bills is treated.
At present, those caught not paying for a TV licence face a fine of up to £1,000 which, if ignored, can lead to a prison sentence.
However, Mr Dowden told the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee that this could send a message that it’s acceptable not to pay it.
‘I do think there are major challenges around decriminalisation which we continue to consider,’ Mr Dowden told the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee.
Oliver Dowden has implied plans to decriminalise non-payment of TV Licence fees may be scrapped because it sends the wrong message that non-payment is acceptable to the public
‘I am concerned that… we do not send a signal that it’s acceptable not to pay your TV licence. So, I’d be concerned around sending signals around non-payment.’
He added that there are ‘wider questions around the funding of the BBC’.
The BBC has warned that switching to a civil system would cost the broadcaster more than £200 million a year.
While contributing to the consultation, the BBC said: ‘Action taken by bailiffs is by its very nature intrusive … TV Licensing does not use them to recover arrears.’
In 2018, 129,446 people in England were prosecuted for not owning a TV licence but only five of these cases resulted in a jail sentence.
Sources initially told the Times that the changes could be introduced as early as this month and one Government source told the paper decriminalisation was a ‘done deal’.
However, they also said that they needed to ensure that the new penalty put in place was not more severe than what is already in place.
Mr Dowden ‘took issue’ with an MP’s suggestion it was ‘a Dom Cummings agenda’ – referring to Boris Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings.
‘I’ve had conversations with him about many things but I’ve never had a conversation with him once about the BBC or decriminalisation or anything else like that,’ he said of Mr Cummings.
Asked whether it appeared that the Government would not be going down the road of decriminalisation, he said: ‘There are legitimate questions about whether people should ultimately face a criminal sanction… I think it was appropriate that we looked at that. The Government is now considering its response.’
‘There are many other big decisions we have to take around the BBC, not least the licence fee settlement.’
His comments came as the Government published an advert for the new BBC chairman.
The suggestion had been that non-payment would be treated as a civil debt, much like the non-payment of a utility bill, a move the BBC said would cost the corporation £200 million a year
And he said he was looking for ‘a strong, credible figure who can hold the BBC to account, to ensure that we have strong and effective corporate governance of the BBC, a proper challenge of the BBC’.
He is ‘particularly concerned to ensure that the BBC returns to its core values of impartiality and takes the opportunity to develop in this rapidly moving digital landscape…’.
What do you need a TV licence for?
Current law dictates that a household needs to purchase a TV licence in order to watch or record any television as it is being shown live.
A licence is also needed if shows are watched live on online TV or streaming services.
You are also only allowed to watch shows on BBC iPlayer if you own a TV licence.
However, you are still allowed to watch films and shows on services such as Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Prime as well as DVDs and Blu-rays.
Non-BBC catch up services such as ITV Player and Channel 4 on-demand can also be enjoyed without a TV licence as long as live television is not watched through them.
‘Does the BBC as much reflect the values of somebody living in a semi in Leigh outside Manchester as they do reflecting the values of someone living in a loft apartment near Old Street roundabout in London?’, he said.
The committee hearing came as the Government prepares to announce a panel to review public service broadcasting.
The possible privatisation of Channel 4 could be on the cards.
‘I don’t think it’s unreasonable that given the massive changes in the public service broadcasting landscape… we review the public service broadcasting landscape and of course all options need to be on the table,’ Mr Dowden said.
Scottish National Party MP John Nicolson accused the Government of being too scared to appear on Channel 4 News.
Mr Dowden denied offering Charles Moore, the former editor of the Daily Telegraph, the job of BBC chairman.
Boris Johnson’s first choice to be chairman reportedly ruled himself out of the running earlier this month.
‘The problem is you guys really hate Channel 4 News. There’s always a slight hint of menace about the way you talk about it,’ he said.
‘Your own Prime Minister… is too scared to appear…. There’s a boycott of Channel 4 News because it’s so effective at pinning him down.’
Last month, the Mail on Sunday reported that the BBC had been facing a TV licence rebellion from pensioners who were refusing to pay the fee.
Before this year, over-75s received free TV licences, but in June the BBC confirmed that the scheme was to end, following a two-month extension because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Non-payments of a TV licence would affect a person’s credit score under civil system plans
As a result, an extra three million households were faced with a £157.50 fee and only those who received the Pension Credit would remain exempt from paying the fee.
Meanwhile, former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre has been approached by Boris Johnson to become Chairman of Ofcom, in the latest example of Downing Street’s determination to shake up the Left-wing establishment.
The Mail on Sunday claims Dacre, 71, who edited the Daily Mail for 26 years until 2018, was asked to consider the role over drinks at Number 10 earlier this year.
Lord Burns, the current Ofcom Chairman is set to step down later this year after agreeing to end his tenure short, rather than seeing out his four-year term which was due to end in 2022.
During ongoing conversations with Downing Street, Mr Dacre said that he was interested, subject to ‘assurances’ about ‘freedom and independence’.