The BBC is responsible for more than one in 10 criminal prosecutions. Culture Secretary Sajid Javid reports that 10% of magistrate court cases are for non-payment of the BBC licence fee. Non-payment is a criminal offence, punishable by a fine of up to £1,000. Every week about 3,000 people are fined for non-payment, and about one person a week is jailed for non-payment of the fine. Women make up about 70% of those prosecuted and convicted, and half of those jailed for not paying the fine. When people fail to pay other utilities, such as energy companies, they are guilty of a civil offence, not a criminal one, and they cannot be prosecuted and fined for falling behind with their payments. Civil action can be taken for recovery, but without fines and jail terms.
Several newspapers have had reporters visit magistrate's court to describe what goes on. They all tell harrowing stories of frightened, distressed people, mostly women, facing fines they cannot pay under threat of imprisonment if they do not. Many are single mothers, many on benefits. They have not paid the licence fee because they cannot afford to. The sum of £145.50 per year is huge for a young mother struggling to feed and clothe children. Many weep in court, unable to pay the fine for the same reason they couldn't afford the licence fee; they don't have the money.
Everyone with a TV, except the over 75s, has to pay, whether or not they watch BBC programmes. If people fail to pay for other services, such as a Sky subscription, for example, the service is withdrawn without them being taken to court and fined.
In 21st century Britain we should not be dragging helpless women through courts and fining them, or making their lives more wretched than they already are by putting them in jail for non-payment of those fines. It should be a civil, not a criminal offence, and should be dealt with by withdrawal of the service rather than by prosecution. The technology to do this is relatively simple.
The development of tiny transistor radios killed the radio licence in 1971. Now laptops, tablets and smartphones make the BBC licence fee increasingly difficult to sustain. Many watch TV on portable devices instead of TV sets. They watch programmes on Catch Up and iPlayer. Many do not watch BBC programmes at all. Clearly an alternative way of financing the BBC has to be found. That will take time, but before then non-payment of its licence should be a civil, not a criminal action, and we should stop letting the BBC hound helpless people through the courts.