Andrew Bridgen is MP for North West Leicestershire.
Imagine the condemnation if the ‘BBC had learnt’ of a banana republic introducing a poll tax on its citizens, irrespective of income, for them to be able to access television. Imagine also that this poll tax were enforced by the threat of a prison sentence which disproportionately saw women with children detained by the state. Well, there is no need to imagine this scenario: welcome to the UK in 2014.
Last week, I submitted an amendment to the Deregulation Bill which would see non-payment of the BBC TV Licence decriminalised and treated as a civil matter instead. During my research into the matter, I was shocked at the extent that the BBC is using the state and taxpayers’ money to enforce their income stream. In 2012, for example over 180,000 cases were bought in front of Magistrates for non-payment of the licence fee – making up one in nine of their cases. In that same year, 51 people were imprisoned for failing to pay a TV Licence, up from 48 the previous year.
For 20 years the Magistrates Association has been calling for the change I’m proposing, as they believe compliance could be improved without recourse to court. The BBC is it seems unwilling to consider this. This isanother example of the institutional arrogance of the BBC, which is exacerbated by having the state act as their debt management operation.
Over the weekend, I have been contacted by a Magistrate who supports my amendment, and who has reported: “As part of our training, JP’s 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.”
The special treatment that the law affords to the BBC may well be a factor in the recent scandals that have hit the corporation. The lack of accountability and transparency is consistent with an organisation that has the Government acting as its financial shield – using the tools of the law and imprisonment. The response issued by the BBC to decriminalisation states that it would mean a one per cent of loss of licence income, which is the equivalent of 10 local radio stations. I would contend it is also a third of the income written off in the Digital Media Initiative.
A true rainbow coalition has come together to support this amendment, with MPs ranging from John Redwood and David Davis to Sir Ming Campbell, John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn. I will be spending the next couple of weeks trying to convince even more colleagues to sign this amendment – and the Government that it should be accepted into the Deregulation Bill.
The protected and privileged status that the BBC has enjoyed for so long is not its saviour or salvation, but instead has allowed it to become distant, remote from and, in some cases, despised by the very people it is supposed to serve. Decriminalisation of the non-payment of the television licence fee will be a huge catalyst for change and how the BBC responds and evolves to this will decide this once great institution’s future.