Fresh calls to decriminalise the TV Licence fee were made today after figures revealed a record 166,000 people paid more than £28million in fines last year.
Campaigners argue that the ‘regressive’ offence unfairly targets poor households and single mothers and gives thousands of people unnecessary criminal records.
Women are more disproportionately targeted than ever, with females making up more than seven in ten people of those sentenced for non-payment of the £145.50 fee.
And alarmingly, women are seven times more likely to be hit with the maximum fine of up to £1,000 than men, Ministry of Justice figures reveal. Some are even sent to jail.
Women are more disproportionately targeted than ever, with females making up more than seven in ten people of those sentenced for non-payment of the £145.50 fee, with 117,642 of the 166,695 people sentenced being female
Opponents have branded the licence fee today’s equivalent of Margaret Thatcher’s deeply unpopular poll tax, which charged every adult a flat rate.
In Scotland, where TV Licensing is a devolved matter, there were only 12 convictions last year. A spokesman for the Scottish government told MailOnline that it manages to enforce the law without criminalising people, saying authorities ‘place greater emphasis on alternatives to prosecution than the rest of the UK’.
Ministers buckled under pressure from the BBC this year not to soften penalties for non-payment of the £145 a year fee, which rakes in nearly £4billion a year for the public broadcaster.
Last year a further £28.7million was raised through fines. The average fine was £173 for the 166,119 people penalised, with some forced to pay up to £1,000.
TV Licensing said the money raised from fines was a matter for the courts. A spokesperson said: ‘We don’t know what happens with that money.’
Campaigners said the ‘greedy’ BBC does not need the fee to be backed up by law enforcers and pointed out that its revenue from the licence fee is more than three times the entire budget of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Under the terms of the BBC’s new Royal Charter, which comes into force on Sunday, non-payment of the TV Licence will continue to be a criminal offence for the next decade.
And new rules now require viewers of the BBC iPlayer to pay the fee.
But a Tory MP is demanding the Government takes steps to decriminalise non-payment for digital services in the hope that the criminal offence will naturally be phased out as the number of people watching analogue television falls.
Tory MP Andrew Bridgen, a long-standing campaigner against the licence fee, is demanding Culture Secretary Karen Bradley makes a fresh attempt to decriminalise non-payment in 2017.
He told MailOnline: ‘It’s a matter of deep concern for me and to many other parliamentarians.
Tory MP Andrew Bridgen, left, a long-standing campaigner against the licence fee, is demanding Culture Secretary Karen Bradley, right, makes a fresh attempt to decriminalise non-payment in 2017
Campaigners said the ‘greedy’ BBC does not need the fee to be backed up by law enforcers and pointed out that its revenue from the licence fee is more than three times the entire budget of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office
‘The licence fee can’t be defended. It’s effectively a poll tax, it’s a regressive tax that disproportionally hits the poor and it’s responsible for giving a criminal record to 160,000 of our citizens every year.
He added: ‘Effectively, a large proportion of those people are being fined for not paying the TV tax because they’re poor.
‘If a single mother has a choice of paying the TV licence or feeding and clothing their children, that’s a very difficult situation for somebody to be in.’
Of the 166,695 people who were sentenced for non-payment of the licence fee last year, 117,642 were women – more than 70 per cent.
Women’s charities say women are disproportionately hit by the crime because those least likely to be able to afford to pay are poorer households, where women are more likely to have their name on tenancy agreements than men and more likely to be at home when TV Licence inspectors come knocking.
But TV Licensing said this year’s BBC Charter Review found no evidence to suggest that non-payment ‘intentionally targets women or that its practises are directly or indirectly discriminatory’.
It said that when TV Licence inspectors visit an unlicensed property it takes a statement from ‘any responsible adult who answers the door’.
Non-payment of the TV Licence can end up in court if offenders refuse to pay the fee after enforcers detect households watching television without a licence
Ministers buckled under pressure from the BBC this year not to soften penalties for non-payment of the £145 a year fee, which rakes in nearly £4billion a year for the public broadcaster. Pictured, a TV Licence fee form from 2009, when the annual fee was £142.50
The figures also show that TV licence fee cases take up a massive one in ten court cases at Magistrate courts, with more than 3,000 a week.
With nearly 90 per cent of the 190,000 prosecutions in 2015 ending in guilty verdicts, campaigners argue that decriminalising the offence would free up essential resources in overcrowded courts.
The Magistrates Association backs the move to decriminalise the fee but successive Culture Secretaries have failed to make any changes to the law.
Former Culture Secretary Sajid Javid admitted while he was in the post that the system wasn’t working.
He said at the time: ‘More than 50 were sent to prison. When over 10 per cent of magistrates court cases concern this one offence, you have to ask whether the current system is really working.’
TV Licensing, the company that enforces the fees, said cases take up just 0.3 per cent of court time because they are much quicker.
A spokesperson for TV Licensing said: ‘The Government’s own independent review of TV Licence fee enforcement concluded the current system is appropriate, fair, and represents value for money for licence fee payers and taxpayers. In the recent White Paper on the BBC Charter Review, the Government noted its agreement with the review’s assessment, and TV Licence cases take up just 0.3% of court time in England and Wales.
‘TV Licensing give people every opportunity to pay as we would prefer not to prosecute.’
The Government said it had ‘carefully’ considered the evidence presented in David Perry QC’s review into the TV Licence and agreed with its conclusion that the current regime represents a ‘broadly fair and proportionate response’ to the problem of licence fee evasion.