Collections body considers impact of decriminalising TV Licensing for future BBC revenues

Policy makers need to think carefully before decriminalising TV Licensing, and consider the fundamental impact it may have on future fee collections.

Incidences of late payment will almost certainly increase, revenues will fall, and the cost of collections is likely to rise.

By making the non-payment of a TV Licence a civil matter, and not a criminal one, the enforcement process will be different, and the cost to the BBC may increase. Rather than having more money to invest as the public service broadcaster, it is likely to have less, something that both Ministers and the BBC will need to factor in to future plans.

With the Government set to consider decriminalisation of the BBC TV licence fee as part of its ‘roadmap for reform’ of the BBC in the year ahead, the Credit Services Association (CSA) has today published a discussion paper exploring the issues facing Ministers if public service fees and levies, such as the TV licence, migrate into the civil debt space.

While being careful not to take sides on the specific merits or otherwise of a TV licence decriminalisation policy, the new paper from the CSA – the trade body for the debt purchase and collections sector – highlights a series of technical considerations decision-makers should factor in, including:

  • the impact higher evasion rates could have in increasing costs for those who do pay their fees, in the same way fare dodgers push up the cost of rail tickets for honest travellers
  • how a change in consequences for non-payment will affect which creditor a customer pays first (i.e prioritises), and the impact this may have on income models for public services
  • how the ability to recover a civil debt depends on proof that the debt exists in the first place – and how technology changes and use beyond the public domain make this challenging
  • how the different psychological effect of criminalised penalties versus non-criminalised sanctions that might impact collectability

The CSA Discussion Paper “Looking After Auntie: what can the debate about TV Licensing tell us about the wider challenges of decriminalisation?” invites a discussion not only on the financial model for BBC funding, but the wider array of hundreds of public sector levies currently subject to a criminal sanction, such as fishing licences or road traffic fines and fees.

Crucially, the report highlights how future ‘civil’ approaches should include plans to invest in alternative customer relations, effective early engagement and good communication.

The June 2021 Ministerial response to the recent DCMS Select Committee report said that they are “keeping the issue of decriminalisation under active consideration” and that “the Government may in future undertake a further, technical consultation on the possible alternative civil sanctions to set out in more detail how alternative schemes could work in practice.”

Report author Henry Aitchison believes that decriminalising fees and levies, such as the TV licence, would fundamentally change the funding models that they underpin: “It needs thinking through very carefully,” he says.

“If a criminal penalty is abolished, the task of maintaining or recovering payments changes. With Ministers signalling a new technical consultation on alternative civil recovery schemes, now is the right time for policy-makers to consider the wider set of public sector fees and levies currently subject to criminalised penalties – and the consequence for the structures they support if these move to a non-criminal sanction basis.”

CSA chief executive Chris Leslie added: “Effective and fair collection strategies, drawn from existing recovery specialisms and anchored in good practice, will be critical in ensuring that user-funding public services continue to be adequately funded. This is a policy debate to which the wider collections sector will contribute in the months ahead.”