TV Licensing must stop prosecuting people in genuine hardship

 

As energy prices skyrocket and poverty is on the rise, it has never been more important to stop criminalising those in debt. Thousands could be left not only shivering and unable to pay their bills, but also criminalised for defaulting on their TV licence.

APPEAL, with our campaign partners at Silver Voices, have been urging top executives at TV Licensing to stop prosecuting people in genuine hardship, either by suspending the prosecution process altogether or by amending their prosecution policies. They refused. Now it’s on us to try and make them listen.

Josiane is a woman we represented when she was being prosecuted for not paying the TV Licence fee. In September 2022 we worked with her to launche a petition calling on TV Licensing to stop prosecuting people who are unable to pay their TV licences during the cost-of-living crisis. It has amassed over 250k signatures. Add your name to the petition to be a part of this growning movement

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There should be a concerted national effort to mitigate the impact of the cost-of-living crisis. As a publicly funded body which is, to many, a national treasure, the BBC should be at the forefront of those efforts, not criminalising people who are in debt and financial hardship.

Gender disproportionality

In 2023, 73% of all prosecutions for TV licence fee evasion were against women, despite women only accounting for around 50% of licence holders. It is the most common offence women are convicted of, yet there is insufficient scrutiny of why we are choosing to drag these women, often with significant health and financial vulnerabilities, to court.

This gender disproportionality has gone up by 10% in the past decade and there is still no satisfactory explanation from the BBC as to why it is taking more vulnerable women to court for TV licence fee non-payment.

Along with our partners at the Public Law Project, APPEAL were instrumental in getting the BBC to face up to this problem by agreeing to carry out a gender equality review in 2022/23. You can read reporting from the Times and the Mail about how this came about.

The disproportionate prosecutions of vulnerable women for licence fee evasion is not only a waste of tax payers’ money but a regressive response to the UK’s poverty crisis.

The Prime Minister spoke in the campaign about the importance of decriminalising not paying the licence fee. We know that it particularly impacts women, we know the ramifications of that, these are big, big issues that we should be questioning and looking at again.” – Michelle Donelan, Culture Secretary, September 2022

How do so many women have a conviction for TV licence fee evasion

18% of criminal prosecutions against women are for the non-payment of the TV license fee.

Part of the problem is that Court reforms aimed at reducing the burden on magistrates have moved much of the process online and to the post service in a controversial system called the Single Justice Procedure (you can read our briefing on this here). This process allows someone to be convicted of a criminal offence without even knowing they are being prosecuted. In fact, 80% of people do not respond to their charges, which normally results in an automatic conviction.

Impact of a TV Licensing conviction

Not only can a criminal conviction come up in a background check for certain jobs or mortgage applications, it can land you in prison if you do not pay your fines. As hard as it is to believe, we still have the Dickensian practice of debtor’s prison going on right under our noses.

Research in 2020 from Women Against Rape also found that hundreds of women who are victims of rape and sexual assault are being denied compensation as a result of minor criminal convictions such as this.

Who are the women behind the numbers?

In 2020 Women’s Justice Caseworker Tara observed a number of TV licensing prosecutions in magistrates’ courts and has spoken to many women facing prosecution. Here are some of their stories. Please note that names have been changed to protect anonymity.

Erica
Erica was visited and interviewed by a TV Licence Enquiry Officer (EO) when she was moving back to permanent accommodation from temporary accommodation, literally while she had boxes in her hand. She said that she had always paid her TV licence but she had not been notified when she had to renew. Erica bought a TV licence when the EO called to her house. She thought that was the end of the matter but months later she received a letter saying she had been convicted and owed over £300. The original notice had been sent to her temporary accommodation address and she had not received it.

Fiona
Fiona had difficulties breathing due to health problems. Because she was in hospital over the last Christmas period, she fell behind on TV licensing payments and was visited by an EO while at home recovering. Her carers were interviewed and confirmed that she had health problems. Despite her obvious vulnerabilities, she was summoned to court. She was very nervous going before the magistrates, as she was worried about being without her carers. The fact that a woman who was known to have significant health problems was required to come to court when there are alternatives to prosecution, indicates a seriously flaw in prosecution policies and decision making.

Amy
Amy had experienced a number of hardships in recent years. A member of her family had passed away, whose funeral she had to pay for. She suffered from crippling migraines yet could not afford to take the time off her 6-day work week to rest. She sent much of her money to her ill parent who lives abroad, who she cannot afford to visit. Amy was adamant that she was not in violation of the law regarding TV licensing. She was convinced that a mistake had been made when she switched her method of payment from direct debit to the simple payment plan. She had lots of paperwork with her to show the dates on which she had paid and how this matched up with when she was supposedly ‘interviewed’ by an enquiry officer. Amy said an EO had called to her house but she had not let him inside. She said that he asked her to sign a piece of paper to show that he had visited, but he had not explained that it was the ‘Record of Interview’ document that forms the primary piece of evidence against a person in a TVL case. She said that she was not cautioned about her rights before this was done, as is required by TV licensing policy. Despite being sure of her innocence, she pleaded guilty to the charge, as the prosecutor advised her that this was the best way to avoid the large cost orders associated with going to trial.

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