12:46, December 16 324 0 theguardian.com

2019-12-16 12:46:04
Q&A: how the BBC is funded by TV licences

What is the state of play with the licence fee?

The licence fee as a method of funding the BBC dates back to 1923, when it was charged on the owners of radio sets. The current standard TV licence now costs £154.50 a year and pays for the BBC’s television, radio and online operations. Some of it helps fund the Welsh channel S4C, while in recent years the Conservatives have also loaded the costs of both funding the World Service (previously subsidised by the Foreign Office) and providing over-75s with the licence fee (previously paid by the Department for Work and Pensions) on to the corporation.

There are currently 25,752,560 television licences in the UK, according to the most recent figures – a slight drop on the previous year, despite the population continuing to increase.

What is the legal status of the licence fee?

Non-payment of the television licence by someone who watches live television or uses the catch-up BBC iPlayer service is a criminal offence. TV Licensing, the arm of the BBC that enforces the charge, estimates that around 6% of British households are currently watching television without a valid licence.

According to TV Licensing, the revenue collection process begins by writing to homes listed as not having a licence: “If no response is received from an address, the tone of the letters progressively becomes stronger to encourage a reply. Sometimes a stronger message is required for people to comply with their legal obligation. The address will also be listed for a visit from an enquiry officer to enquire about the licensing requirements.”

Officers do not have a legal right of entry to a person’s home without a search warrant from a court, but they may ask to be let in, at which point they check whether there is a television in the main living space.

How does enforcement work?

The maximum penalty for not having a TV licence is a £1,000 fine. Although there is no jail term attached to the offence, a person may be imprisoned by the court for failing to pay the court fine.

“TV Licensing will only prosecute when all other options have been exhausted,” said Suzy Vickers of TV Licensing last year. “The majority of first-time offenders will be able to avoid prosecution if they buy a licence before their case comes to court.”

Despite this, 129,446 people were prosecuted for non-payment last year, with the vast majority found guilty. Although most were dealt with swiftly and did not take up a substantial amount of court time, it still amounts to around more than a tenth of all cases brought before a magistrate’s court. When the Guardian reported on such hearings back in 2014, one man attempted to hand over his television to the court to avoid prosecution.

Non-payment of the licence fee is also an issue that disproportionately affects women, with three-quarters of those prosecuted being female, perhaps because they are more likely to be at home during the day when officers visit.

How easy would it be to abolish the licence fee?

The BBC’s existence is underpinned by a royal charter, with the most recent one signed for 10 years in 2017. This guarantees the existence of the licence fee until 2027 and it would require new legislation to unpick this arrangement, which could be difficult and face substantial opposition in the House of Lords.

However, the level at which the licence fee is set – and therefore the amount of funding available to the BBC – is up for negotiation. The current arrangement runs out in 2022, at which point there needs to be a new agreement between the corporation and the BBC for the next five-year period.

What about decriminalisation of the licence fee?

The government has insisted it is actively considering decriminalisation of the licence fee, an idea last floated five years ago when Sajid Javid was culture secretary. This approach would downgrade non-payment to a civil offence, with enforcement made by TV Licensing through civil courts and enforced using bailiffs – similar to non-payment of an electricity bill.

Back in 2015 the government-commissioned Perry Review unexpectedly concluded that the current system should be maintained, with decriminalisation risking around £200m of BBC revenue and increasing the costs of licence fees. The review concluded that maintaining it as a criminal offence was “broadly fair and proportionate response to the problem of licence fee evasion and provides good value for money” while the funding system remained intact.

What are the alternatives?

In the long run, other European countries are shifting away from licence fees and towards funding public broadcasters through general taxation – although this would leave BBC funding even more at the whim of the government of the day.