Decriminalising the BBC licence fee?

A supporter of Ourbeeb has intercepted this message which appears to provide evidence that extra-terrestrial aliens have the earth under surveillance.

Richard Collins
29 April 2014

ERGTI annual, 2013-14 (earth year), report from earth to Enceladus headquarters.  


TV licensing van - wikimedia

The earthlings persist with their search for what they call ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence. Their own low intelligence means that they have not yet detected our long standing surveillance programme through which we have improved our understanding of the earth and what its self-congratulatory inhabitants call its “civilisation”. We, the Enceladus reporting group on Terrestrial Intelligence (ERGTI), however, are close to completing our mission of documenting the habits of the least unintelligent of earth’s species – humanity. Nonetheless, various vexing gaps remain in our knowledge and understanding. As we have earlier reported exhaustively humans, as they call themselves, are prone to elementary errors in logical reasoning with unfortunate consequences for increasing, rather than reducing, the quotients of suffering and resource waste that disfigure their “civilisation”. A particularly grotesque perversity has grown in salience in the last reporting period.

Earthlings in the United Kingdom (a political entity of diminishing importance and increasing fragility – see earlier reports dating from 100 [earth years] ago) have declined to adopt any of the earth’s other well established systems of funding public service broadcasting (notably advertising, taxation, subscription, voluntary contributions) in favour of retaining their ancient licence fee system. Not only is the licence fee intrinsically an unfair tax (a so-called poll tax which does not take account of ability to pay) but it is unfairly distributed to a single recipient (albeit one which is charged with disbursing small amounts of revenue to third parties) independently of the extent to which television viewers choose to use the services provided by the licence fee recipient (the BBC). Moreover, the licence fee tax is applied only to television viewers who use a particular kind of receiving device to access BBC TV. Earthlings in the UK persist with this quaint system despite the costs and injustices which attend it. Quantification of these costs and assessing the magnitude of the injustices is not easy for those benefitting from this curious system do not facilitate access to the necessary information. However, compilation of and extrapolation from data in the public domain (albeit of varying age, intelligibility and comprehensiveness) enables ERGTI to report on this curiosity with a reasonable level of reliability.

In March 2014, 149 UK MPs proposed decriminalisation of non-payment of the television licence fee. The criminal penalties attaching to non-payment of the licence fee contrast with the civil penalties attaching to non-payment of other liabilities such as rent, energy and water supply, council tax etc. In debate the sponsor of the Parliamentary motion, Andrew Bridgen MP, cited testimony from magistrates and court officers including a magistrate’s claim that “TV licence evaders are predominantly female, many of them benefit recipients with children. The majority are single struggling to keep their families financially afloat”. We undertook our own research to assess the validity of Bridgen’s claim and a magistrate known to us confirmed Bridgen’s claim and stated: “The feeling amongst our magistrates was a combination of frustration & futility - there is no way one can sensibly justify imprisonment for this type of offence. Offenders were nearly always women, often single parents & on benefits”. 

How many of these vulnerable people are put at risk of criminalisation? In 2012, 182,000 cases of licence fee evasion were heard in magistrates’ courts – about one ninth of all magistrates’ cases. The cost of maintaining magistrates’ courts and thus of processing such cases is not easy to estimate but the sum of savings estimated (in 2010 – see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10391126) to accrue from closing about a third of magistrates’ courts in England and Wales provides a basis for a reasonable estimate. The proposed closures were to yield an estimated saving of £37m (nb this sum does not take account of costs in Northern Ireland and Scotland). If the cost of all magistrates’ courts in England and Wales is, therefore, estimated to be c£111m, the cost of one ninth of the cases heard in such courts seems likely to amount to c£12.3m. To this should be added the BBC’s own enforcement costs – unfortunately the BBC told (see HL Paper 50-II p 456) the Minister for Culture, Media and Sport (in 2005) that it was unable to disaggregate its enforcement costs from the overall licence fee collection costs of £152m (in 2004-5). We are therefore unable to make an estimate of the BBC’s costs (funded, of course, from the licence fee).

But despite the significant financial costs borne by the justice system, the main cost of enforcement is, of course, borne by those stigmatised by criminal prosecution. The offence of non-payment of the television licence fee is a criminal offence. Mr Bridgen provided testimony to the stigmatisation this entails by citing the testimony of a woman successfully prosecuted for non-payment of the licence fee: “I remember being so distressed but not being able to turn to anyone as that would mean telling them what I had done……. A couple of days before the case was heard, I was admitted to hospital…. I was found guilty and fined. When I applied for my first job, I declared my conviction and was asked about it at the interview. I felt so humiliated”. For those who do not or are unable to pay a fine, following a successful prosecution of licence fee evasion, imprisonment may follow.

In 2012 51 people were imprisoned for non-payment of fines for television licence evasion (and 48 in 2011). There doesn’t appear to be comprehensive data in the public domain for periods between 2004 and 2011 on the numbers of people imprisoned for non-payment of fines for television licence evasion. However, in 2004 46 people were imprisoned for this offence in England, Scotland and Wales (a significant fall from the 728 imprisoned in England and Wales in 1995). Estimates of the cost of imprisonment must therefore be added to court (and the BBC’s enforcement) costs to assess how costly the criminalisation of non-payment of the licence fee is. These estimates vary considerably - Bridgen asserted to Parliament that “the average cost of keeping a prisoner in prison is about £1000 a week”. However, a Ministry of Justice estimate put the average direct cost (without accounting for the capital cost of prisons) per prisoner per year at about half Bridgen’s estimate: in England and Wales it estimated the average annual cost per prisoner in 2010-11 to be £26,978 – ie c£74 per day or £518 a week. It’s clear, therefore, that the costs of enforcing the requirement to pay the TV licence (whether or not BBC TV services are used) are a significant deadweight cost on the UK economy - and one not borne by the BBC.

As yet, the earthlings have neither decriminalised television licence fee evasion in the UK nor taken steps to establish a different way to finance the BBC: one which would take account of differing abilities to pay; of declining use of BBC services and of the growing public discontent with the perceived profligacy of the BBC. Public funding for the BBC rose by 63%1 between 1997 and 2010 despite a growing body of evidence to suggest that the BBC was not a good custodian of public resources (see, inter alia, NAO reports on the websites of the BBC Trust and its predecessor the BBC Governors as well as the succession of lurid tales testifying to the generous salaries, benefits, payoffs and pensions enjoyed by BBC senior managers). The disparity between increased funding and perceived waste and feather bedding accounts for a major portion of the BBC’s loss of public (and elite) support in recent times. Accordingly, Bridgen’s amendment to the Deregulation Bill may stand but the Government has stated that any implementation will be delayed so that a public consultation can take place. In the end, the issue may be so watered down in the consultation that it leads to virtually no change - in fact if you were an earthling you could say  that decriminalisation may well be kicked into the long grass (an earthling metaphor unfamiliar to readers on Enceladus where successful selective breeding has long endowed us with grass that grows to verdant lawn length and no further) but even so, controversy over funding the BBC and the criminal penalties seems likely to grow as the UK approaches BBC Charter Renewal again in 2016. But, the Enceladus Reporting Group on Terrestrial Intelligence believes, UK based earthlings may well not rectify this particularly egregious injustice in the foreseeable future – their institutions are too ossified and the incumbent benefitting from this absurdity is too strong.

The licence fee itself is likely to remain whether or not non-payment is decriminalised and enforcement costs will continue to fall on the justice system and not the BBC. Significant numbers people – often among the weakest and poorest in UK society – will continue to suffer and be stigmatised because they can neither pay the licence fee nor afford to access their television through a wired connection and a computer rather than wirelessly and via a dedicated television receiver. Accordingly, ERGTI will continue to watch the unfolding of UK broadcasting policy and how the many challenges posed by the BBC (as well as those faced by the BBC) are addressed. This task is likely to preoccupy ERGTI for the foreseeable future. We have found that terrestrial intelligence has developed very slowly and there are no signs that the rate of increase is likely to rise. The absurdity of funding public service broadcasting through a licence fee enforced by criminal penalties is an outstanding case in point2.


Hansard (2014) Public Bill Committee consideration of the Deregulation Bill on 25.3.14 debate on New Clause 19

House of |Lords (2005) Select Committee on the BBC Charter Review. 1st Report of Session 2005-06. The Review of the BBC’s Royal Charter. Volume II: Evidence. HL Paper 50-II. Norwich. TSO.

Ministry of Justice (2011) Costs per place and costs per prisoner by individual prison.

1 In the period between 1997, when a Labour government took office, and 2010,when it lost office, the BBC’s income rose by 63% (because of greater efficiencies in licence fee collection and growth in numbers of households as well as increases in revenues accruing from rising licence fees. ERGTI’s estimate is based on data from the BBC’s Annual Report and Accounts for 2009 and on data extracted by Wikipedia from BBC Annual Report and Accounts for 1998 (see here and here. These rises came at a time when national finances deteriorated: in 2009, for example, UK GDP fell by 4.9% and GDP per head fell by 5.5% (see ONS 2010: 20 and 22). Some of the BBC’s “Jacuzzi of cash” as the BBC’s Director General, Mark Thompson (in 2002 when Chief Executive of Channel 4) described it was “topsliced” (although that term is strongly resisted by the BBC) to fund digital television switchover and the Conservative government gave the BBC further “topsliced” responsibilities – notably for funding the Welsh language television service S4C and the BBC’s external services.

2 ERGTI acknowledges the help of earthlings David Elstein and Lis Howell in providing insights and improving drafting of this report.


Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData