radiolicenceI wonder how many landline phone lines will still be going in 2020. Already when people exchange phone numbers it is invariably mobile ones. I also wonder how many people will watch BBC programmes using their TV sets. Many already watch via their computer screens. The TV Licence seems just as old fashioned now as the Radio Licence must have seemed a few years before its abolition in 1971.

The Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen is proposing that non-payment of the TV Licence should be a civil offence rather than a criminal matter. This would make it consistent with settling a debt for a utility bill. At present non-payment take up a huge amount of court time. There are around 180,000 prosecutions a year – over 10 per cent of criminal prosecutions.

The TV Licence is effectively a tax – and a highly regressive one. The rich might not mind the £145.50p a year. For the low paid it is a great burden.

The Government should accept Mr Bridgen’s proposal. However the wider issue is whether the TV Licence should continue to exist at all. This morning a report(£) in The Sunday Times indicates that even the BBC increasingly accepts that the current arrangement is not sustainable for ever:

Most of the 12 members of the centenary review panel thought that from 2020 the BBC could become a subscription service rather than one financed through the licence fee. The review was established last summer by James Purnell, the former Labour cabinet minister and now BBC director of strategy and digital, to provide an outsiders’ view on the future of the BBC. Members of the panel included Julian Le Grand, professor of social policy at the London School of Economics; David Elstein, the former Sky, ITV and Channel 5 executive; and Alice Enders, a media analyst.

The BBC is having to confront radical reforms as the nature of broadcasting and technology changes just as it is being forced to tighten its belt. Last week Tony Hall, the director-general, announced that BBC3 was to become available online only to help save £100m. He would not guarantee the survival of BBC4.

The BBC may well prosper in the new age when it will have to compete in the market place for subscriptions. It might well provide some content for free, perhaps funded by advertising – just as some newspaper websites are available free. It may well be a rather less dominant voice in the media – that would be healthy for for a free and democratic society which allows a diversity of opinion to flourish independent of the state.

It is welcome that the Corporation seems to accept that the licence fee is indefensible. The Conservative Party should catch up with line of thinking.