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The Data Doesn’t Back Dorries on TV Licence Fee

The Culture Secretary has announced sweeping changes to BBC funding will mean an end to elderly people being threatened by the Beeb – but are elderly people really going to prison for not paying their licence fee?

Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries in December 2021. Photo: Uwe Deffner/Alamy

The Data Doesn’t Back Dorries on the TV Licence Fee

The Culture Secretary has announced sweeping changes to BBC funding that will mean an end to elderly people being threatened by the Beeb – but are elderly people really going to prison for not paying their licence fee?

“The days of the elderly being threatened with prison sentences and bailiffs knocking on doors are over”, said Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries on Twitter yesterday, as she trailed the Government’s “last announcement” on BBC funding and the licence fee. 

That this will be “the last” announcement has led to rumours that the Government will abolish the fee altogether when the BBC’s Royal Charter comes up for renewal in 2027. The proposals also include a two-year freeze on the fee. 

But, as speculation about the BBC’s future heats up, two implications in Dorries’ tweet need to be challenged: that the elderly are being threatened with prison, and that the BBC is wholly responsible for charging older people for its content. 

Last January, the Government confirmed that there were no people in prison for failing to pay a fine for non-payment of a TV licence in England and Wales. The data was published at the end of a consultation into decriminalising the licence fee. The Government chose to maintain the existing law, saying that it would “keep looking at this as we negotiate the next licence fee settlement”.

The BBC has also been clear that over-75s would not be targeted for non-payment of the licence fee. Last March, the Corporation’s director general Tim Davie confirmed that enforcement letters regarding TV licence non-payment would not be sent to over-75s who previously had a free licence, and the cohort would not be prosecuted for non-payment. 

This was affirmed by Dorries herself when she addressed Parliament on 6 January this year. “The BBC confirmed recently that no enforcement action has been taken against anyone over 75 years of age at this stage,” she said.

“I am clear that the BBC must support those affected by the decision to end free TV licences for over-75s, and I expect it to do so with the utmost sensitivity.”


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A 2020 change in BBC policy limited free TV licences for the over-75s, meaning that only those on pension credit would continue to receive the free benefit. Previous to this, all over-75s were entitled to a free TV licence. 

Downing Street condemned the move, however the BBC hit back to say that the change was forced upon it by the Government’s decision to stop funding the policy. Labour backed the BBC and accused the Government of betraying pensioners and trying to shift the blame on to the broadcaster.

Between 1992 and 1999 – before the free licences for over-75s was introduced by the Labour Government in 2000 – no one over the age of 75 was prosecuted for non-payment of the licence fee, according to the Ministry of Justice. 

Short Sentences, Long Impact

The issue of incarcerating people for non-payment of the TV licence is a serious one that has long been the subject of debates and consultation – with everyone from Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen to prisoners rights groups condemning it as criminalising poverty. 

The law disproportionately impacts on women – 74% of those jailed for this offence are women and it accounted for 30% of all female convictions. The majority of convictions (114,000 in 2019) are dealt with by fines, while 91 people were sentenced to prison for not paying their TV licence between 2015 and 2018. 

Short custodial sentences for non-violent crimes such as non-payment of the licence fee have a devastating impact on women’s mental health, economic outcomes and their relationships with their children. They also fail to resolve the economic issues that lead to non-payment in the first place.

For this reason, it is good news that between June 2020 and at least January 2021, no people were in prison for this offence and that the BBC said it will not send enforcement letters to the older population. However, this does suggest that Dorries’ assertion that the elderly are being threatened with imprisonment is not reflective of the current reality when it comes to sanctions for not paying the licence fee. 

Less attention is paid to the imprisonment of people for non-payment of council tax, which affected 700 people in England between 2010 and 2017. England is the only country in the UK that imposes prison sentences for this offence. 

As with the non-payment of the TV licence, women are disproportionately impacted by this law as they are more likely to have council tax bills in their own name, and are more likely to be home when enforcement officers arrive. The law also has an impact on women who may be struggling having fled domestic abuse, as they are still obliged to pay council tax. 

Women imprisoned for council tax enforcement laws are often caregivers and face losing custody of their children, their home and their jobs if sent to prison. Prison does not clear the debt, and it risks exacerbating the cycle of poverty that led to non-payment in the first place. 

However, MPs eager to attack the TV licence fee have less to say about custodial sentences for other offences related to non-payment of bills, such as council tax. Speaking to Channel 4 News in 2019, Conservative MP Kevin Hollinrake said that he “would prefer not to have this sanction but if it’s necessary, we should keep it”. His colleague Andrew Bridgen MP called criminalising the non-payment of the TV licence fee “indefensible”. However, he told Channel 4 News that the same did not apply for council tax as it “is not a regressive tax”.

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