The BBC licence fee shake-up

Risking jail for not paying for your TV licence may soon be a thing of the past, says Matthew Partridge.

The days of being faced with prison for not paying your television licence fee may be numbered. MPs of all parties have backed an amendment to a private members' bill (the Deregulation Bill) that would result in a review of the current penalties for not paying your licence fee.

While no change will happen before the next election, from summer 2015 non-payment could become a civil rather than a criminal offence (in 2012, 51 people went to prison for not paying licence fee fines).

A wide range of figures, from Labour's Harriet Harman to former BBC boss Lord Michael Grade, nowsupport decriminalisation, according to The Guardian.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

There is certainly a "legitimate debate" to be had about how the licence fee is collected, reports the Financial Times. But decriminalisation would mean "licence-fee defaults would probably rise". In turn, this would "undermine the legitimacy of the fee" and mean "far-reaching changes to the essential character of the BBC".

Although the national broadcaster "must be constantly open to the challenge of change", it is important that "great care should be taken over how this is done". Yet "the practical case for the measure is unarguable", says Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan in The Daily Telegraph.

With prosecutions "silting up our criminal justice system", treating an unpaid licence fee just like any other unpaid bill would save "a great deal of time and money". It would also "remove the BBC's monopoly".

Removing the threat of prosecution means that effectively, the "fee ceases to be a tax and becomes a subscription", turning the BBC into "a pay-on-demand service like its rivals". This won't hurt the quality of the programming it will just make the BBC "more cost-efficient".

The "reasonable consensus that 40p per household per day is worth paying for ad-free television and radio" is being eroded by "disillusion and political opportunism", writes BBC Radio 4 presenter Libby Purves in The Times. The risk is that if the licence fee gives way to a subscription model, it would leave radio programming in particular very vulnerable.

While television "creates celebrity, fashion and tabloid excitement for other media", radio "just doesn't". This would be sad because "our speech radio is a marvel: democratic, portable, nimble".

While sneerers' may claim that it is "all elite or elderly" the truth is that it is "cherished by long-distance drivers, home workers, craftspeople". So whatever happens to BBC funding, "someone had better... ring-fence... high-quality radio".

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri