Non payment of the BBC licence fee will remain a criminal offence thanks to Peers in the House of Lords rejecting a government attempt to make it a civil offence.
Lord Grade, a former BBC Chairman conveyed concern that there were “dark forces at work”, amid fears throughout the chamber that watering down the offence would lead to thousand of households not paying the fee, blowing a hole in the BBC’s budget.
In the event, Lords voted 178 to 175 in favour of an amendment that retained the criminal penalty for non payment of the fee, which currently stands at £149.50 per household per year. The money goes directly toward funding the BBC.
Andrew Allison of the Freedom Association’s ‘Axe the TV Tax’ campaign said: “A number of Peers spoke in the debate, and these included Lord Grade (former BBC Chairman), Baroness Benjamin (Floella Benjamin, former BBC children’s TV presenter), Lord Cashman (former EastEnders actor), and Viscount Colville of Culross, a BBC producer. For the record, all of them declared an interest.
“It was a tight vote. If you took away those who have either earned a living out of the BBC, still work for the BBC, or have a BBC pension, the vote would have gone the other way.”
During the debate, Lord Grade warned his colleagues: “I would love to see the licence fee decriminalised, but there are risks in doing that.
“There are risks the enemies of the BBC will see it as an opportunity to then move the compulsory element of the licence fee and move the BBC to a subscription model which would completely undermine the whole concept of public service broadcasting. I think there are dark forces at work.
“I see no reason at all to interfere with the BBC’s financial planning and I see every reason to support this amendment in order to take a measured look and so that we don’t interfere with the delicate financial arrangements for the BBC.”
His concerns were shared by Lord Fowler, who said “We know nothing about the future of the BBC, we know nothing about the future of the licence fee and we know nothing about the impact it will have on the finances of the BBC. This is all basic information that Parliament is entitled to have before making a change of this type.
“What we do know is that some of the most enthusiastic supporters of this change are opposed to the licence fee to any event. This is just a mini sideshow as far as they are concerned. They are opposed to the BBC as a public broadcaster and they advocate a subscription system. We know that that is the case.”
Writing for the Freedom Association’s blog, Allison responded to these accusations, arguing “Although we are consistent in our opposition to the TV licence fee and continue to make the positive case for its abolition, making non-payment of the fee a civil offence makes sense.
“It should not be a matter for the criminal courts, not that those who refuse to pay the fee would find it easier to not pay it. No-one wants a County Court Judgement against their name, so talk of the BBC losing hundreds of millions of pounds of revenue if it is made a civil offence, is nonsense.”
His words were echoed in the Chamber by Baroness Corston, who has in the past written a paper on women in prisons. “I know that 50 people a year are imprisoned because they don’t pay a television licence,” she said.
“They are not imprisoned if they don’t pay council tax and local authorities seem to survive. We should not allow the continuing criminalisation of this penalty because of the malign effect it has on an admittedly small number of people. I do not think that the signal we are sending that the status quo is alright is acceptable.”
Unsurprisingly former BBC employees were amongst those lining up to defend the status quo. Lady Benjamin, a former BBC children’s television presenter warned that even a ten percent rate of evasion could have a “potential impact on children’s programming” as it would mean a loss of £200 million to the BBC. “This could mean that children’s original UK content could suffer,” she said.
And former EastEnders actor Lord Cashman told Peers: “I see it, quite frankly, as an attempt to constrain the BBC – it is a seat belt wrapped over the BBC. It will stop them being able to do any long-term planning.
“This great public service broadcaster will be inhibited from going into contracts of employment with their own staff, let alone staff that they need to bring if their long-term planning is to produce the programming that we demand.”