The BBC has published its response to government plans to decriminalise non-payment of the television licence. The corporation argues for maintaining the current system of enforcement of television licensing, with the threat of home visits, a fine of up to £1,000 and a criminal record, and ultimately imprisonment for non-payment. However, it does contemplate the possibility of a levy on broadband access as a potentially simpler and more efficient funding mechanism.

The response noted that the focus has rightly been elsewhere in the coronavirus pandemic but that the role of the BBC was more vital than ever.

Indeed, public perception of the BBC has probably risen in response to the crisis, which has seen large audiences for news programmes in particular.

It also comes at a time when TV Licensing, which is operated by Capita Business Services on behalf of the BBC, has temporarily closed its contact centres and suspended home enforcement visits due to coronavirus restrictions.

The BBC maintains that the current licence fee system remains fair, effective and good value for money. It argues against decriminalising non-payment and suggests that would reduce BBC revenue by an estimated £200 million a year due to increased levels of evasion.

In 2018 about 130,000 people were prosecuted and received a criminal record for non-payment of the licence fee of £157.50 per household. Five people in England and Wales were ultimately sent to prison for failing to pay court-ordered fines.

Over 25 million households hold television licences, costing each one around 43 pence a day and raising £3.69 billion in revenue for the BBC at a cost of collection of over £100 million a year.

Just two short paragraphs towards the end of the 40-page response address alternative methods of funding, which the BBC refers to as automating collection.

The BBC notes that in some countries the TV licence, or equivalent, is linked directly to an existing common household bill. For example, it is collected through electricity bills in Italy and the equivalent of council tax bills in France. The BBC suggests that another option to consider could be broadband bills.

Such an approach is described as a “significant change” and the BBC is not advocating it at this stage. However, the BBC concedes that it is open to exploring further “whether the current system could be made much simpler, more efficient and more automated”.

This is a notable shift in strategy and may reflect the inevitable need to change the television licence system that many see as anachronistic. A levy on broadband access or communications services that is ring-fenced, or ‘hypothecated’, for funding the BBC, or public service media in general, could be politically acceptable.

Meanwhile, the BBC is arguing for further consultation and that any decision should only be taken as part of the next licence fee settlement in April 2022.

The BBC response to the Government’s consultation on decriminalising TV licence evasion is available from the BBC web site. A summary of all the responses to the consultation will be published by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in due course on the government web site.