Today’s news links carry the story of the developing row between Michael Gove, the Justice Secretary, and John Whittingdale, the Culture Secretary, over the future of the BBC licence fee.
Gove, who now heads a department with an unprotected budget, wants to see non-payment of the licence fee decriminalised. Licence fee prosecutions reportedly comprise a full ten per cent of all cases seen by magistrates’ courts.
It would also prevent some 150,000 people a year picking up criminal records.
Yet despite the Tories having attempted to implement this previously, Whittingdale opposes the move on the grounds that a Government report had raised “serious problems” with the proposal.
The nub of these problems? That the BBC would lose money.
Policy can a complicated business, but surely this is something that advocates of decriminalisation – amongst whose ranks at one point seemed to stand one Mr Whittingdale – ought to have realised and priced in long since?
Indeed, it was set out quite clearly by Andrew Scadding, Head of Corporate and Public Affairs at the Corporation, on this very site more than a year ago.
Nor is there any good reason to doubt that their warnings are accurate: it stands to reason that if the penalty for not paying the fee is reduced, incidences of non-payment will increase.
Yet that is not a debate-closing argument. The huge savings to the court system in a time of austerity would allow for the redirection of scarce resources to more important cases.
Decriminalisation would also lift the spectre of a criminal record or even prison from Britain’s poorest families, many of whom struggle with what Whittingdale has himself described as one of the UK’s most regressive taxes.
Moreover, is a reduction in BBC income such a terrible thing? A key aim of those hoping to use charter renewal for reform is to move away from a leviathan, monolithic BBC with subsidised fingers in every slice of the market.
Whilst the core public service function of the Corporation is doubtless important, modern lawmakers must also reckon with the fact that the BBC now produces huge amounts of programming the funding of which does just justify imprisoning people.
The Government should embrace the challenges facing the BBC to enact bold funding reform.
A certain amount of fundamental services, such as the news and such, should be funded either by a reduced universal licence fee or even general taxation.
The full spectrum of BBC output, on the other hand, should be subject to voluntary subscription. This could either be a big one-off package or a more granular set of deals such as I outlined last month.
History is full of bold reformers who go native on reaching office. Whittingdale should take care to tend the radical, reforming zeal he exhibited in opposition, and not go to the trenches for the status quo.