Campaigners have warned that current TV licence laws are disproportionately affecting women, especially those living in poverty, and that decriminalisation should be welcomed as a result.
This is following the news that Boris Johnson’s government will look at reviewing the licensing laws and decide whether those who do not pay the fee should still be prosecuted.
Naima Sakande from the Centre for Criminal Appeals tells The Independent the laws are a “feminist issue” because women are more likely to be living in poverty, or impacted by austerity, than men, and as a result cannot afford to pay the licence expense.
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They are also more likely to be the member of the household who is present when licensing officers come to the property – so are more likely to face charges.
Every year prosecutions are brought against thousands of Britons who do not buy a licence, but the number of those against women is much higher than men.
In 2017 (latest data available), 72 per cent of all prosecutions for TV licence-fee evasion were against women.
This figure is so high that licence-fee evasion accounted for 30 per cent of all prosecutions against women, the single most common charge.
In contrast, only 4 per cent of prosecutions against men were for non-payment of the licence.
Sakande says this is because many women are living in poverty and cannot to buy one: “Poverty is not a crime, and after years of tightened belts and austerity cuts, many are deciding the TV licence fee is simply not an expense they can take on.”
Since April 2019, the annual cost of a colour TV licence is £154 (£52 for a black and white TV). Without one you risk prosecution and can be issued a £1,000 fine.
The income is primarily used to fund BBC television, radio and online services. The total income of the licence fee payments in 2018-2019 was £3.69bn.
Statistics from the Women’s Budget Group in March 2019 show women are more likely to be living in poverty than men, with the proportion of single women living in poverty at 25 per cent. This is compared with 23 per cent of single men.
Nearly a quarter (23 per cent) of single female pensioners are poor, the highest figure in 15 years; and 45 per cent of single parents (90 per cent of whom are women) are living in poverty.
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And for Bame women the impact is even worse: the Runnymede Trust says Black and Asian single-parent households have experienced the biggest average living drop by 19.2 per cent and 20.1 per cent respectively.
Young Women’s Trust chief executive Sophie Walker agrees the prosecution statistics are a result of women’s economic disadvantage: “The disproportionate number of women prosecuted for TV licence non-payment is the result of policies and laws that do not take into account or understand the reasons why women are burdened by economic injustice, inequality and a decade of austerity.”
Amnesty International also said that a decade of austerity in Britain was leaving women in an increasingly “precarious position”.
Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, agrees with Sakande that the licence fee is a feminist issue and should be scrapped to remove the burden from women.
She tells The Independent: “Women are disproportionately targeted for prosecution for non-payment of the licence fee.
“This is because they are more likely than men to be living in poverty but also because of the simple fact that they are more likely to be at home to open the door when the TV licence detector van comes knocking.”
This was also the finding of a 2017 investigation by the BBC into gender disparity in licence prosecutions.
The report said the contributing factors to the problem were “underlying difference in the makeup of households, the greater availability of women to answer the door”, and the likelihood that women would “engage positively” with the TV licensing officers.
The report concluded that there was “no evidence” to suggest enforcement activity is “unfairly” or “intentionally” targeted at women and there was no discriminatory practice at work.
Despite this, Smethers and Sakande still believe that the way the system works is “criminalising women” because of the way it is run.
“Criminalising the poor and criminalising women for non-payment of the licence fee is not a good use of public money and is not the best way for the BBC to save its funding model,” says Smethers.
Johnson isn’t the first politician to suggest a review of the licence. In 2014, then culture secretary Sajid Javid outlined plans for the scrapping of the fee.
In 2012 the TV licensing arm of the BBC subcontracted the process to private group Capita for a period of eight years.
The total income of the licence fee payments in 2017-2018 was £3.83bn, which supplements the corporation’s annual running costs.
In the last 12 months the BBC has seen the money from its annual licence fee drop by £140m, from £3.83bn to £3.69bn – due partly to the government’s phased reduction of funding for free TV licences for the over-75s.
In June, the BBC said it will no longer fund free licences for up to 3.7 million pensioners, with only low-income households (where one person receives the pension credit benefit eligible).
The BBC also saw a fall in income caused by the decline in the sale of consumer products such as DVDs, to the tune of £33m, in the period 2018-2019.
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