‘(1) The Secretary of State must carry out a review of the sanctions that are appropriate in respect of contraventions of section 363 of the Communications Act 2003 (licence required for installation or use of television recording).
(2) A review under subsection (1) must—
(a) examine proposals for decriminalisation of offences under section 363 of the Communications Act 2003;
(b) begin before the end of a period of three months from the day on which this Act is passed;
(c) be completed no later than 12 months after the day on which it begins; and
(d) be laid before both Houses of Parliament by the Secretary of State on completion and be presented to the BBC Trust.’.—(Andrew Bridgen.)
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Government new clause 20—TV licensing: alternatives to criminal sanctions.
New clause 1—TV licence fee non-payment: de-criminalisation—
‘(1) Section 363 (licence required for use of TV receiver) of the Communications Act 2003 is amended as follows.
(2) In subsections (2) and (3), for “guilty of an offence” substitute “liable to a civil penalty”.
(3) Leave out subsection (4) and insert—
“(4) The Secretary of State shall specify by regulations the level of penalty to be imposed under this section.
(4A) Regulations under subsection (4) shall be made by statutory instrument.
(4B) A statutory instrument under subsection (4A) shall not be made unless a draft has been laid before and approved by both Houses of Parliament.”.’.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your able chairmanship, Mr Chope. The amendments concern the uncontentious issue of making non-payment of TV licence fees a civil rather than a criminal offence. New clause 19 was tabled by me and the Attorney-General, as was new clause 20. New clause 21 stands in my name and those of 148 right hon. and hon. Members from across the House.
The aim of new clause 1, which was tabled some weeks ago, is twofold: first, to test the sentiment of the House and its appetite for decriminalising non-payment of the TV licence fee; and secondly, to start a debate about the wider issues and with the stakeholders. I think colleagues will agree that those aims have been achieved. I am told that it is unprecedented in recent years for there to be 149 supporters of an amendment to a Bill. The new clause has created a broad coalition—a rainbow coalition—from across the political spectrum.
I shall mention a few of the names: my right hon. Friends the Members for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) and for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) and the hon. Members for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn). They are at the extremes of the political spectrum and not normally bedfellows. In the middle, there is my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) and the hon. Members for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) and for Bradford West (George Galloway). We also have support from members of the SNP and Plaid Cymru.
The hon. Member for Bradford West signed only last Thursday, so he is a late arrival to the bandwagon.
Why do we need to change the law in this way? Imagine the condemnation if the BBC had learned of a banana republic introducing a poll tax on its citizens, irrespective of income, for them to be able to have access to television. Imagine also that that poll tax was enforced by the threat of prison sentences that disproportionately saw women with children detained by the state. Well, there is no need to imagine that scenario, because that is exactly the position in this country.
At the risk of touching on your former role, Mr Chope, that is exactly what the previous Conservative Government did in Scotland. They introduced a poll tax that disproportionately hit women and children, and lots of people who could not pay ended up in prison.
Yes, and we all remember how unpopular the poll tax was and how quickly it was removed. The television licence fee has a history rather longer than that.
I think the hon. Gentleman just said that women and children were being locked up. Can he take me through examples of children being locked up as a result of the non-payment of a television licence?
I said “women with children.” If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I have been sent some reports from magistrates that validate that claim.
The television licence fee dates back to 1946 and before that was the radio licence, which originated in the 1920s. The TV licence has been classified as a tax since 2006 by the Office for National Statistics, which stated that
“in line with the definition of a tax, the Licence fee is a compulsory payment which is not paid solely for access to BBC services. A licence is required to receive ITV, Channel 4, Channels, satellite and cable”.
It is probably the most regressive tax in the UK today.
Since 1946, little has changed in how the licence fee is calculated and collected, aside from the change to colour television. During that time, satellite, cable and the internet have all emerged as information and entertainment gateways and all without the backing of legislation to collect their payments. While gas, electricity, water, telephone and pay TV suppliers have to use the civil system to recover their funds, we continue to let the BBC enjoy the luxury of having the state act as its debt collector. That special status only serves to fuel an arrogance and sense of entitlement at the BBC and distances the corporation from the very people it is there to serve.
It is one thing to be concerned about poor people being compelled to pay, but it is another thing to criticise the BBC. As a strong supporter of the BBC and the principle of the licence fee, I do not support the hon. Gentleman’s view.
The hon. Gentleman is right to make his opinion heard. We will perhaps have a wider debate about the future of the BBC at some point, but he is right that we are here to discuss decriminalising non-payment of the TV licence. However, the BBC itself has somewhat widened the debate.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and I commend his tenacity on this issue. We all have strong opinions on the funding of the BBC, but does he agree that the best approach when discussing such matters is a totality approach, rather than looking at any one individual aspect of the BBC’s funding in isolation?
I agree. New clause 19 suggests having a review, and it is important that we do not prejudice the outcome of any such review, which should be as wide-ranging as possible.
Some other countries do; most do not. Even where they do, the level of the licence fee is considerably lower than in the UK and puts far less of a burden on the lowest paid.
I would like to make a little progress as I have not even reached my second page yet. There will be plenty of opportunities for further interventions.
I received information yesterday from Saga, a group that represents the over-50s. Members may have heard of it. I am not quite in their target group yet, but I am getting close. The research calculated that more than 50% of over-50s are in favour of decriminalisation, with 23% of the sample being in favour of the status quo. The number polled was 10,000, so it is significant. Paul Green, Saga’s director of communications, commented:
“Many of our customers are clearly concerned that time and money is wasted annually prosecuting people who haven’t paid their licence fee.
To those who want to see change, it would be far more sensible to make non-payment a civil matter, bringing all the consequences of not paying with it.”
Despite my youthful demeanour, I fall into the 50-plus group, although I have not made use of Saga just yet. Does my hon. Friend agree that decriminalisation will alleviate the blocking up of magistrates courts with the pursuance of non-payment cases?
Without jumping ahead in my speech, I should say that my hon. Friend is completely right. That is well publicised. According to the latest figures, which are for 2012, there were 182,000 such cases, making up approximately one in nine of all magistrates’ cases.
Paul Green from Saga said:
“Chasing this number of errant licence fee payers sounds like a scene straight out of comedy series WlA and shouldn’t really be a part of modern Britain.”
Although the BBC is trying to downplay the impact on the courts system of prosecuting for non-payment of the TV licence, there is no doubt that the impact is considerable. For 20 years, the Magistrates’ Association has been calling for this change. It believes compliance could be improved without recourse to court.
The hon. Gentleman seems to oppose the licence fee itself; he has talked about it being a regressive tax. I am not sure whether he is suggesting that those who earn more should pay more for their licences or whether he is making some other case. Is he against the licence fee in principle or is the amendment about what the penalty for non-payment should be?
The legislation is very clear. It is about the penalty for non-payment and making it a civil rather than a criminal offence. We are coming up to charter review and the charter periods are considerable lengths of time—10 years potentially. Technology has moved on enormously. We did not have smart phones 10 years ago. We did not have iPads. The BBC will need to have a wider debate about its funding mechanism because it needs to move with technology or it will be left behind.
Thomas Docherty rose—
I am trying to be helpful, as I think my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield was. The hon. Gentleman is doing it again: he is widening the debate. He is talking about the length of the review and the technology platform. The reality is that many Members on both sides of the Committee do not support his view but support decriminalisation. If he wants to maintain the good will of both sides of the Committee, he needs to knock it off and get back to the decriminalisation issues.
I take the hon. Gentleman’s warning. However, it is difficult to look at one part of the Bill without looking at the whole issue. It will have to be addressed in the near future, but I take on board what he is saying.
I come back to the point. For 20 years the Magistrates Association, representing the people who deal at the sharp end with non-payment of the TV licence fee, has been calling for decriminalisation. It believes that compliance, which is currently very high at 94.5%, could be improved without recourse to the courts. Indeed, the Magistrates’ Association contacted me only last week to reiterate its continued support for decriminalisation.
Take, for instance, the comments made to me in an e-mail by John Kiddey, a magistrate in Torquay:
“JPs attend a special briefing by TV Licensing and, in my briefing, we were told that TV Licensing has almost as much power as HM Revenue and Customs in terms of what they can do. The very fact that they were able to lay on a presentation with videos, speakers etc makes me question why the BBC has this special deal on fraud/deception/theft which is not enjoyed by any other public or private company.”
Although the BBC appears to be trying to gloss over the amount of court time spent on collecting its debts, the facts speak for themselves. In 2012, as I mentioned, more than 180,000 cases were brought in front of magistrates for non-payment of the TV licence fee, making up one in nine of their cases. The BBC has been briefing that
“they do not want people to go to prison”.
Well, in 2012, 51 people were imprisoned for failing to pay fines associated with not having a TV Licence, an increase from 48 the previous year. The BBC has labelled this in its e-mails
“A very small number of individuals”,
but another e-mail I have received from a barrister states:
“During my time in Court I was struck by the number of poor people up before the bench who were receiving a criminal conviction for not paying their television licence. Most of them were guilty only because they were very poor. They did not seem to be feckless people, just people who were down on their luck. Prosecuting them was (and is) shameful and remains a blot on our legal system.”
I imagine that many magistrates will be making exactly the same points about the bedroom tax. Will the hon. Gentleman tell us whether the measures are part of a wider programme of not wanting to see people prosecuted whose only crime is not being wealthy enough to pay their bills and obligations to society, or whether he thinks there should be decriminalisation purely on the issue of the licence fee?
The hon. Gentleman has to acknowledge that the BBC is the biggest criminaliser of the public on a regular basis in the UK—responsible for one in nine of all magistrates’ cases. As we are discussing a Deregulation Bill, now is the right time to put the legislation through. As I understand it, his party is now supporting moves to decriminalise. He should be applauding.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a difference between civil proceedings for arrears of rent and the peculiarly strong effect of attending a criminal court? As a barrister, I have attended court and seen the queue of poor people with their children in tow having to make their explanations of the loss of a job, illness or whatever, to get mercy from magistrates. As a barrister, I endorse the comments from another barrister that my hon. Friend has reported.
The Solicitor-General is absolutely right. There is a huge difference between the threat of criminality and a civil offence. I am not suggesting for one minute that people should find excuses not to pay their dues. Indeed, I will present further evidence to the Committee to back that up.
I move on to another comment from the judiciary. Another magistrate, Joan Horton, commented in a letter to The Times back in 2003:
“As a JP, I have for 20 years had the difficult task of sentencing TV licence defaulters, followed some months later by the often hopeless task of fine enforcement. Unlike other offenders, TV licence evaders are predominantly female, many of them benefit recipients with children. The majority are single, struggling to keep their families financially afloat. Food and electricity tokens often take priority over a weekly TV licence payment. If still without a licence, offenders can be re-prosecuted almost immediately unless they dispose of their TVs.”
The average cost of keeping a prisoner in prison is about £1,000 a week. Many of those prosecuted are single mothers. Retention of the law comes, then, at a substantial human and financial cost.
I also want to share a story I have been told about what it is like to be pursued by the BBC for non-payment. The person who told me this story wishes to emphasise that she knows that what she did was wrong, but it was not done to try to deprive the BBC of revenue or avoid paying her dues. She says:
“I lost my first reminder and when the second one came in, I walked down to the local post office. I lived in a small village and the local post office didn’t offer the service. I had two toddlers and was pregnant and in poor health. I didn’t drive and public transport wasn’t accessible for my double buggy. I had no internet access and it wasn’t possible to pay over the phone.
I will never forget the day that a man came to my door and read me my rights. I felt sick, guilty and worried about what would happen. I remember being so distressed but not being able to turn to anyone as that would mean telling them what I had done. I was too scared to tell my husband and wrote to the courts explaining my circumstances. A couple of days before the case was heard, I was admitted to hospital as I was suffering from pre-eclampsia. I was still in hospital when my husband brought in the judgment. I was found guilty and fined. When I applied for my first job, I declared the conviction and was asked about it at the interview. I felt so humiliated but was offered the job.”
That is the harrowing experience suffered by someone who works in the Palace of Westminster; hon. Members probably meet her on a regular basis. She asked to remain anonymous because she has never told her children that she has a criminal conviction, and is so ashamed of it. That is the effect that process has had on that individual: it is something she says she will carry with her for the rest of her life.
The BBC has responded to the proposal by stating that if decriminalisation meant the loss of just 1% of licence income, that would be the equivalent of 10 local radio stations.
At a number of points my hon. Friend has mentioned briefing by the BBC. Is he concerned about the amount of money the BBC has spent opposing these very sensible changes, with MPs being harangued by lobbyists from the BBC, some of whom are being paid more than £300,000? It seems completely disproportionate to have that type of response to what is quite a sensible move.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Indeed, the effort that the senior BBC executives are putting into persuading and coercing signatories to the amendment to withdraw them, with some success in some cases, so that they can continue to use the law to criminalise the most vulnerable customers, displays a questionable set of priorities, in my view.
So the BBC has been saying, in very emotive language, that even a 1% reduction in its income will result in the removal of 10 local radio stations. This was later ramped up to saying that the BBC might lose £200 million a year, leading to the axing of CBBC and CBeebies—clever media management from the BBC, using the most emotive channels and options, rather than, for instance, using the amount written off by the digital media initiative, when the BBC wrote off £100 million of taxpayers’ money.
Oh dear, Mr Chope. Interwoven into the argument is, of course, the future of the licence fee. The BBC has brought it up and it seems determined to expand its fiefdom, with the Director-General, Tony Hall, saying recently that he wants the licence fee to be extended to include the estimated 500,000 UK homes where viewers do not have a TV set but watch corporation programmes on demand on iPlayer. I presume that, to accommodate that, enforcement officers would have to have the right to inspect a person’s computer, tablet or phone to look for the iPlayer. That is potentially another huge and insidious invasion of privacy by the state.
I did, and I think my hon. Friend was rather wishing she would come and give evidence to the Committee. I have spoken to colleagues—Ministers and ex-Ministers—who do not have, and never have had a television in their London flat, and they tell me that no matter how many letters they write to the BBC saying, “I do not have a television in my small flat in London, but I do have one in my family home in my constituency and I pay for a TV licence there,” they are getting threatening letters on a monthly basis and have being doing for a long time. I know people in my constituency who do not have a television but feel so intimidated by demands to pay for a licence that they pay for one even though they have no television. If the BBC wants to extend demands for TV licensing to people who do not have a television but view online, they will be seeking another extension of their powers.
I have detected a number of contradictions in the hon. Gentleman’s argument, but this one particularly. Earlier he was saying that we needed a review of the BBC’s funding because of the incredible changes in technology over the last few decades, and now he is saying that that should not include the different ways in which people are watching the BBC, such as online.
The hon. Lady misunderstands my argument. I was saying that I would not want to see an invasion of people’s privacy to enforce it. Perhaps a licence might be taken out, or the cost might be added to the price when an item is acquired, as in other countries. But I would not want to say what the review should and should not look at. It is a review into how the BBC is funded and the impact of decriminalisation, and needs to be as wide as possible. People could actually look to the future to see where technology is heading.
The comments of the BBC are, to me, symptomatic of an organisation that is showing no interest or desire to move away from the licence fee model backed up by law on criminalisation. I can understand that. I can understand that no organisation or private company that is having its income stream protected by the threat of criminalisation would ever want to give that up. Indeed, James Purnell, director of strategy and digital at the BBC—whatever that means—has gone on the record as saying that the current system of licence fee and enforcement and criminalisation, in his view, “works pretty well”. Well, it may work pretty well for Mr Purnell, who is on £295,000 a year of taxpayers’ money, and his chums, but I do not think it works pretty well for the 182,000 people who are dragged through the magistrates court, and it certainly does not work pretty well for the 51 people who went to prison.
I had a meeting with Mr Purnell on Thursday last week, where he actually claimed that the BBC did not want, and had never wanted criminalisation. I had not seen the press releases where he maintained this, but he said the BBC had been consistent; they did not want to put anybody in prison and they did not want to give anybody a criminal record. I assured him that I would endeavour to get the Committee to help relieve the BBC of that burden as soon as possible.
I am just going over in my mind what my hon. Friend just said. Is he saying that Mr Purnell is paid £295,000 a year—double what the Prime Minister is paid? Can he check his figures, because that is just completely ludicrous?
I am afraid my hon. Friend heard me correctly. Mr Purnell is remunerated £295,000 a year as the director of strategy and digital. It is my belief that this protected and privileged status that the BBC has enjoyed for so long is not its saviour and salvation, but instead has allowed it to become distant and remote from, and in some cases despised by, the very people it is supposed to serve.
Decriminalisation of non-payment of the television licence fee will be a huge catalyst for change, and the way in which the BBC responds and evolves will decide that once great institution’s future. As new clause 1 has been so well supported in the debate, I believe that we moved, as a House and as a Committee, from considering whether non-payment should be decriminalised to the matter of how and when. New clauses 19 and 20, in my name and that of the Solicitor-General, deal with that.
New clause 19 is very simple and would allow for a review, to start three months from the enactment of the Bill, which is likely to be in the autumn. The review would consider the impact on the BBC of alternatives to criminalisation for enforcement of its licence fee. I hope that it will examine wider issues for the future, as charter review is so near, and look into a sustainable future funding mechanism for the BBC. It should take no more than 12 months, and would report to both Houses of Parliament and the BBC Trust.
Under new clause 20 the Government would take powers to decriminalise non-payment of the TV licence by statutory instrument, without the requirement to return to either House. That would happen within 24 months of the enactment of the Bill.
Did the hon. Gentleman just say that the statutory instrument by which powers to decriminalise would be taken under new clause 20 would not require going back to either House for its implementation—that it would not happen under the affirmative procedure?
I believe that I said that the Government would take the power to be able to decriminalise in the future by statutory instrument. I urge all members of the Committee to heed the amount of cross-party support for the proposal.
Having just read the new clause, I confirm that the statutory instrument would be under the affirmative procedure: it would require the authority of both Houses.
I am sure that Front-Bench Members will be relieved to know that I am not going to press new clause 1 to a vote. However, new clauses 19 and 20 will set in train the process of ending a great injustice, under which millions of citizens have been criminalised and thousands placed in prison, for no conceivable social benefit, as far as I can discern.
If the hon. Lady works it out, the number is between 50 and 70 a year, and non-payment has been a criminal offence since 1946, so I suggest that thousands of people will have been placed in prison. If we look at the fact that 155,000 people got a criminal record in 2012, which is the latest year that we have figures available for, and extrapolate that, since 1946 millions of people would have got a criminal record for the offence of not paying their television licence fee.
I totally support new clauses 19 and 20. I put that on record. In my discussions with the BBC, it indicated that a loss of revenue might result from pursuing this policy. I know the hon. Gentleman himself had discussions with the BBC. What was the outcome of those discussions in relation to the loss of income?
What those at the BBC said to me was that they did not want to criminalise people. What they wanted was a mechanism for obtaining their income stream that worked. I think we can all agree on that, and that is why we are going to have the review. I appreciate that it is impossible to acquiesce to, perhaps, the views of many people in the House who would like immediate decriminalisation. This is a great injustice. However, that is impractical because the BBC has no mechanism in place tomorrow to collect in what it is owed. That is why we need the review. That is why we need new clauses 19 and 20.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, and many other colleagues, for their stalwart support of these amendments. It is worth pointing out that only four colleagues signed the amendment. They were, obviously, pressurised by the BBC’s lobbying campaign—a £3.8 billion corporation pitted against a Back Bencher with his mobile phone—and I was disappointed that two of the colleagues who removed their names from the amendment are members of this Committee—the hon. Members for Derby North and for Luton North. I do hope that when they read the reasonable amendments that we have tabled—new clause 19 and new clause 20—they will see that we are accommodating the worst concerns of the BBC and giving it time to come to a new way of collecting in the licence fee or indeed of moving to a new funding mechanism altogether—a mechanism for the future.
Let me say on behalf of the hon. Member for Derby North, who is not here, that far from removing his name from the amendment, he was surprised to find that his name had ever been added to it. Let me get that on the record.
I agree with the position that the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire has taken to take forward new clauses 19 and 20 and not new clause 1; but for the sake of those watching this debate, would he explain why he has chosen not to take new clause 1 to a vote but to withdraw it?
As I set out in my speech, new clause 1 was tabled to test the sentiment of the House and its appetite for decriminalisation. I think it has achieved that across all parties; we have seen that. It was also there to get the debate going. I do not think the hon. Gentleman can disagree that we have had, over the past three weeks, a debate in the wider media about the licence fee and whether it should be a criminal or civil offence.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned my name. I did remove my name from new clause 1. I did so in view of the fact that both Front Benches apparently have agreed to a review. I thought that was sufficient. I was also concerned—as he will remember from my intervention—about attacks on the BBC. The independence of the BBC is of fundamental importance, and how we finance it has quite a strong bearing on its independence. That is what concerned me. But I accept the decriminalisation point.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that.
Decriminalisation—or a civil offence—has a huge effect on those the BBC serves and the perception of the BBC by the populace at large. I believe that the BBC needs to look at this as an opportunity, not a threat, and as a chance to reignite that linkage with the people it is there to serve, rather than subjugating them and forcing them to pay a tax. At its extreme—as the hon. Gentleman knows, and it is a persuasive argument—it is criminalising people simply for the crime of being poor and that should never be a crime. He will never agree with that.