Scrap the Licence Fee to Save the Courts

The License Fee is unjust, unnecessary, and certainly isn’t a matter for the courts.

I moved into a new apartment a fortnight ago. This being the 21st century it was deemed essential that a television was bought forthwith. This was done, to a cost of £249.

Unfortunately that is not the end of the matter, because I – like every other televising chump in Great Britain – am expected to fork over some £150 to the British Broadcasting Corporation to pay for their output, whether I consume it or not.

The BBC tax (and make no mistake, it is a tax) irritates me intensely. Not because I am anti-Beeb – though at times its sheer bias and institutional arrogance does grate heavily. Rather I am anti-licence fee because it strikes me as axiomatically absurd that buying X requires me to pay for Y. Not unlike booking a room at Premier Inn only to fork out for the Hilton as well.

However, much as I loath the principle of the tax, it is the practical ramifications that also grate.

Firstly, the BBC tax is regressive. This is one of the great ironies for a broadcaster with such an intrinsic leftwing bias. To a millionaire a television licence is just a bureaucratic nuisance. To someone struggling with rising energy costs, food costs, and housing costs it is just another burden, wholly unnecessary.

Secondly, the tax is very inefficient, with well over 1.3 million people estimated to be avoiding the wheeze. The amount of money the Beeb spends chasing avoiders is substantial, and could easily be spent elsewhere. The 2010 licensing-enforcement costs were approximately £130m, or almost enough to pay for the BBC website and all its offshoots.

BBCThirdly, at times the BBC’s licensing enforcement is little more than organised thuggery. Automated letters harassing members of the public, whether those with a television or not, demanding that they fork up because ‘this is your final warning’, and ‘we know where you live’. Such practice was never examined at the Leveson Inquiry, something worth noting the next time the Corporation launches an anti-tabloid segment.

But the ramifications go further than the BBC and its unfortunate interlocutors (I won’t call them customers, as no custom has been given). In particular I wish to focus on the justice system.

In 2012 some 180,000 people appeared before Magistrates’ Courts across Britain to face accusations of not paying the licence. A large figure in itself (some 3,500 per week), it represents a staggering 12% of all cases in the Magistrates’ Court. Take out motoring offences and the figure is almost three times higher.

The justice system is already creaking on the edge of the possible, especially with government cuts coming down the line. Those cuts are necessary to try and reduce the deficit, and indeed eliminate general waste. But an extra 12% capacity would be enormous. To put the figure in context, an extra 12% capacity for the criminal courts would have the same effect as Crossrail will have on the London transport system.

Let us make the frankly heroic assumption for a moment that we want to keep the BBC in its present form. There are still better ways to pay for it. The most practical way is probably to take it out of general taxation. But again that provides issues of fairness, and is still a burden on struggling taxpayers, even if less forcefully.

No, the better way to fix BBC funding – if not the BBC itself – is to go for an opt-in service. So when one order one’s television it will come with the commercial terrestrial channels; ITV, 5, etc. If one wants the BBC ine can pay a BBC subscription fee. Much like Sky. Personally I would prefer to keep the Beeb free of advertising, so a higher subscription could be charged for that privilege.

But the idea that we have to stick with the licence fee is absurd. It needs to go, as a matter of principle, and a matter of practice. Of course it won’t, as the BBC is fundamentally incapable of reform.

Lucius Winslow has an MA in politics, works for a consultancy, and is presently striving to be a solicitor. Follow him on Twitter at @Lucius_Winslow


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