TV licence fee evasion could be decriminalised

Cases of people accused of evading licence fee accounted for more than one in 10 criminal prosecutions last year

The government is to launch a formal review of the law that makes it a crime not to pay the TV licence, following a campaign led by backbench Conservative MPs.

Ministers will commit in the new deregulation bill to complete a consultation on the crime of licence fee evasion within 16 months, after more than 150 MPs started pushing for immediate decriminalisation.

The BBC believes the proposal could lead to reduced revenue and force it to axe services but on Friday it appeared relieved it had been given a reprieve from any instant change in the law.

A corporation spokesman said: "The BBC is content that this proposal balances a timely examination of this issue with a proper review of the options, while not taking any decisions prior to charter review."

A BBC Trust spokesman said: "This is an issue that should be discussed in the round, including the potential impact on licence fee income and BBC output, with any decisions made as part of the charter review process. This amendment appears to be in line with that."

The campaign has been led by Andrew Bridgen, a Tory MP, who wants to make non-payment a civil rather than a criminal offence through an amendment to the forthcoming deregulation bill.

The government has now indicated its partial support for his plans, with Oliver Heald, the solicitor general, putting down a joint amendment with him promising a review of the issue.

The review will have to start within three months of the deregulation bill passing and take no longer than a year. Its findings will be presented to the BBC Trust as well as to both Houses of Parliament.

Cases of people accused of evading the £145.50 fee accounted for more than one in 10 of all criminal prosecutions last year – with 155,000 people convicted and fined.

A report in the Times newspaper said ministers were looking at the option of blocking TV channels for non-payers as part of a possible move to bring in civil penalties for licence fee evasion.

Sources close to Maria Miller, the culture secretary, said lots of options were being floated but the government has got no further in its thinking than ordering the review into how decriminalisation could potentially work.

The amendment, due to be voted on next week, said the review should start within three months of the deregulation act being passed and be completed "no later than" a year after it began.

Bridgen has also called for a move "to replace the TV licensing offences with civil monetary penalties payable to the BBC".

All three of Bridgen's amendments will be discussed by the deregulation bill committee on Tuesday.

A Department for Culture, Media and Sport spokesman said: "Decriminalising non-payment of the licence fee is an interesting idea.

"We will therefore carry out a review of whether or not non-payment should remain a criminal offence through an amendment to the deregulation bill."


Rowena Mason and Tara Conlan

The GuardianTramp

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