Boris Johnson’s British government is forging ahead with plans that the BBC has said could blow a £200 million ($262M) hole in its content budget by weakening its ability to collect its £3.7 billion ($4.8B) licence fee revenue.
Just days after senior industry figures sounded alarm bells about the BBC facing an unprecedented threat from the government, culture secretary Nicky Morgan has launched a consultation on decriminalizing licence-fee evasion.
The consultation is the first step towards scrapping criminal sanctions, including jail sentences, for people who fail to pay the £154.50 annual licence fee to access the BBC’s services across TV, radio and online. The government is aiming to introduce the changes in April 2022.
It said more than 121,000 people were convicted for licence fee evasion in 2018, but the BBC pointed out that only five people in England and Wales were jailed for not paying court fines.
The government acknowledged that ending sanctions could put a dent in the BBC’s funding, but said it would “consider the impact of it in the context of the overall licence fee settlement.” The government did not expand on what this might mean.
Morgan said the time has come to “make sure the TV licence fee remains relevant in this changing media landscape,” adding that “many people” feel that criminal sanctions for evaders “punishes the vulnerable.”
“Today we are launching a public consultation to make sure we have a fair and proportionate approach to licence fee penalties and payments, that protects those most in need in society,” she said.
It comes just five years after the government commissioned an independent review by David Perry QC into licence-fee evasion. At the time, he said the current system is “fair and proportionate,” as well as providing “good value for money.”
A BBC spokesman said Perry’s review raises a “question about what issue this repeat consultation is trying to solve.” They added that any changes the government makes should be “delivered in a way that doesn’t fundamentally undermine the BBC’s ability to deliver the services they [audiences] love.”
“We have a settlement agreed with the government and any substantial changes to the BBC’s income should be considered as part of the next licence fee settlement,” the spokesperson said.