Decriminalising TV licence fee evasion is 'huge risk', warns BBC strategy chief

James Purnell says move could cost up to £200m a year and leave channels including BBC4, CBBC and CBeebies facing axe

Decriminalising TV licence fee evasion could cost the BBC up to £200m a year and lead to the axing of channels including BBC4, CBBC and CBeebies, its strategy chief has warned.

The BBC director of strategy and digital, James Purnell – who is a former Labour culture minister – said on Tuesday it would be a "huge risk" to push through such legislation.

Purnell was speaking after it emerged last week that a cross-party group of MPs is pushing for a change in the law to make non-payment a civil rather than a criminal offence, with culture secretary Maria Miller indicating she is prepared to consider the idea and implement it swiftly.

Speaking after the launch of the new BBC iPlayer, Purnell said: "Say the rate of evasion was to double from about 5%, now that would be £200m. That would be all of BBC4, all of CBeebies, all CBBC.

"I understand ... some other offences enforced by the government through the civil courts you end up with evasion rates or writing off 50%, sometimes 70%, so that's a significant figure. We don't know what the system would be but what we're saying at this stage is doing it like this, very quickly, would be a huge risk. The choice would then be either we take those services off [air] or the government would have to have a higher licence fee."

Purnell said it is "hard for us to say what the impact would be" exactly, because "we don't operate a system at the moment" that deals with evasion as a civil offence.

He added that the corporation is looking at what happens with non-payment of utility bills to draw comparisons.

"The key question we need to think about is how do you persuade people to pay for something you can't stop them receiving. We don't know the evasion rates on utilities but from what we've seen about 10% of people are not able to pay bills ... that's just a guideline."

Purnell said the BBC is keen to have a joint working group with officials and politicians, adding that the forthcoming charter review process was "clearly a very good opportunity for the government to consider this" decriminalisation proposal.

But he pointed out that under the current court system, licence fee evaders can be dealt with according to circumstances, whereas a civil system could lead to higher fixed penalties that could penalise the less well-off.

Danny Cohen, the BBC director of television, said at the same media briefing on Tuesday that last week's announcement that BBC3 is to become available only online was "a difficult moment and a sad moment in some ways" but "quite liberating".

He said BBC3 will be at "the heart" of the new iPlayer.

Almost 200,000 people have signed a petition asking the BBC Trust to save BBC3 from becoming an online-only channel.

However, Cohen said: "I don't see it as needing to save it. BBC3 is going to carry on, we're just doing it in a different way. 25% of iPlayer views now come through connected TVs ... I don't see it as something that needs saving just something that's going to grow in a different way."

He pointed to the new exclusive content that will be available on iPlayer such as the short comedies, which include a satire on interactive television called Frankie Boyle and Bob Mortimer's Cookery Show. Cohen gave assurances that the BBC will "make sure everything he [Boyle] does on the BBC has our standards and values".

Separately, Purnell was asked to give an overall figure as to how much is being spent on the new iPlayer but said only that individual breakdowns are not available but figures are available on the BBC's website.

He also gave assurances that the BBC will protect data of those who sign up to the personalised section of the new BBC iPlayer.

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Tara Conlan

The GuardianTramp

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