50.50: Opinion

Why are women being disproportionately penalised for TV licence non-payment?

A staggering 74% of people convicted of non-payment of the licence fee in the UK are women – though they make up only 49% of licence holders

Naima Sakande
16 February 2021, 11.30am
A third of all criminal prosecutions against women are for non-payment of the TV licence
Nick Ansell/PA Archive/PA Images

At the end of January 2021, following an eight-week consultation in 2020, the government announced that it would not go ahead with plans to decriminalise non-payment of TV licences. This is despite the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, having acknowledged “the considerable stress and anxiety it can cause for individuals, including for the most vulnerable in society, such as older people”.

This decision may be a relief to some people, given the politicised atmosphere in which the consultation was carried out. In the run-up to the 2019 general election, cabinet ministers boycotted Radio 4’s Today programme after complaining of bias. When the Tories were returned with an increased majority, the new government seemed to want to send a signal to the BBC that it wasn’t untouchable; its first official announcement was that it would look into decriminalising non-payment of the licence fee.

Yet while the government’s plans provoked outrage in some quarters about the threat to a cultural icon, this is actually a case of Goliath versus Goliath. For many, the annual fee of £159 (announced last week) is a minor household bill, but non-payment results in criminal convictions for more than 100,000 people a year. Perhaps most shockingly, TV licensing offences disproportionately involve women, who in 2019 made up a whopping 74% of people convicted of non-payment in the UK – though only 49% of licence holders are women.

A third of all criminal prosecutions against women are for non-payment of the TV licence

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In fact, in 2017, 30% of all criminal prosecutions, of any kind, against women were for non-payment of the TV licence. Decriminalising non-payment would drastically reduce the number of women being dragged through the criminal justice system.

Frustratingly, not enough is known about why women are so disproportionately affected. In a 2017 internal review, the TV licensing authority (which is operated by the BBC) concluded that most of the factors contributing to this disparity were driven by circumstances outside its control.

The review cites patterns of habitation as an example: according to the 2011 census, there are 9% more female-only households than male-only households. Yet this hardly accounts for the staggering imbalance in prosecutions; in fact, the disproportionality has worsened since the review was published.

The review pointed to the greater likelihood of women being at home and therefore answering the door to a licensing officer, and also suggested that they were more likely to engage positively with them. But a woman being more likely to open the door with a smile does not mean she is more likely than a male member of the household to be culpable for TV licence non-payment.

Take Amina. APPEAL, the legal charity I work for, represented Amina in her TV licensing case. She was deeply anxious after being threatened with prosecution in 2019. Amina and her husband were moving cities while she was heavily pregnant and in and out of hospital. Paying the TV licence at their new property slipped their minds.

When a TV licence officer came to the front door, she explained that her husband was in charge of arranging the payment. Her husband even spoke over the phone to the officer while he was on the doorstep to confirm this, and he paid for a new licence under his name immediately. A few weeks later Amina received a letter saying she was being prosecuted for watching TV without a valid licence. Despite her husband having paid, the officer had opened a new licence fee account in Amina’s name without consulting her.

“It caused me big stress,” says Amina. “To the extent that now when someone comes to the door, I think something [bad] will happen.”

Our intervention on Amina’s behalf helped stop the prosecution. But the majority of people affected do not have access to legal advice and often plead guilty to avoid incurring greater financial penalties.

APPEAL attended Stratford magistrates’ court in east London over five months in 2019 and 2020 and spoke to 20 women about their experiences. Eight women told us they were in receipt of Universal Credit, two had disabilities, nine had caring responsibilities for children or older people, and six had other debt problems – many of them were affected by more than one of these issues. Seven had initially been convicted without their knowledge.

These are the people being dragged through court. Not fat cats or opportunistic shirkers – but poor people, mainly women, who are being criminalised for their poverty. The licence fee, charged at a flat rate across the country, helps sustain the BBC as a public service. But rather than get sucked into one side or other of the government’s culture war, we must decriminalise the non-payment of the fee and work out a fairer and more proportionate response to evasion.

If you are a woman seeking help with a TV licence prosecution, you are encouraged to contact APPEAL for support.

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