TV licence fee: Government considers using bailiffs to repossess property of people who refuse to pay fee

Enforcement methods for non-payment of licence fee debt would include calling in the bailiffs, Government consultation says

Bailiffs would remove television sets from people who refuse to pay the licence fee, under plans being considered by the Government as an alternative to criminal prosecutions.

Launching a consultation on evasion of the licence fee, Baroness Morgan, the Culture Secretary, said the BBC needs to “move with the times” or it could go the same way as collapsed video rental firm Blockbuster.

The public will be asked for their views on whether criminal sanctions for the non-payment of the licence fee, which rises to £157.50 in April, should be replaced by an alternative enforcement scheme.

Jail threat ‘not proportionate’

Ministers believe the threat of jail is not a “proportionate and fair” sanction for evasion and want to replace it with a system that “protects the most vulnerable in our society.”

One proposal in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport document is to treat the TV licence fee as a “civil debt recoverable through a money claim in the civil courts”, like an unpaid council tax bill.

“The enforcement methods available would depend on the value of the debt and the court used, but they could include taking control of goods by enforcement agents (bailiffs), the use of attachment of earnings orders and charging orders,” the document said.

‘Aggressive’ bailiffs fear

The Ministry of Justice is currently reviewing the bailiff industry to make sure that enforcing debts does not lead to aggressive action.

“The use of enforcement agents (bailiffs) to enforce the debt… may cause additional anxiety for individuals who may already be vulnerable,” the Government acknowledged.

Higher penalties for evaders

Decriminalisation could lead to higher penalties than the current system for evaders, who would be liable to court costs and bailiffs fees in addition to a fine, which could be fixed at £500.

Licence fee evasion is currently at a low level. In 2018, just five people in England and Wales went to prison for not paying fines, and collection costs of enforcement would increase by £45m, the BBC estimates.

A 2015 review, rejecting decriminalisation, said such a move “could also lead to a sense of unfairness amongst those who continue to pay their licence fee,” the consultation said.

Baroness Morgan said that review needed revisiting because “a TV licence wasn’t required to watch or download content on BBC iPlayer” at the time.

‘Undermine BBC’ threat

A BBC spokesman said: “There is a question about what issue this repeat consultation is trying to solve.”

Any changes “must be fair to law-abiding licence fee payers and delivered in a way that doesn’t fundamentally undermine the BBC’s ability to deliver the services they love,” he said.

The BBC “tried to set up a Netflix service a decade ago while they were still sending DVDs in the post, but was prevented from doing so by regulators,” the spokesman added.

Baroness Morgan insisted that “accountability and value for money must be at the heart of how the BBC is funded.”

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