The TV licence is criminalising the poor and the vulnerable

The [man] was at my door… I actually said to him “I can’t give you what I’ve not got.” I can’t do it’.

(Mary, lone parent with a disabled son)


  ‘a society that is constructed in a way that in effect forces some people to break the law in order to lead a materially decent life is especially incompetent or unjust’ 

Wolff and De Shalit (2007: 47)

The research

In collaboration with the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland (CPAG), I have undertaken a six year study of twelve families in Scotland that explores how welfare reform and austerity measures are affecting them. Although the research is a joint project, this blog is the outcome of my analysis of the data, these views are my own, and do not represent the position of CPAG.

TV licence evasion

The television licence is a particular problem as you can be prosecuted, fined and even go to prison for non-payment. In England and Wales, prosecutions for non-payment of the TV licence currently account for around one in 10 of all criminal cases in the magistrates’ courts.[1]

Criminalising women in poverty

It is also a highly gendered debt with women being particularly disadvantaged. Females accounted for 72% of all prosecutions for television licence evasion in England and Wales in 2017.[2] Furthermore, and even more worryingly, television licence evasion remains the most common offence for which females are prosecuted, at 30% of all prosecutions for women in 2017 in England and Wales.[3] The fact that almost a third of all female prosecutions are for non-payment of the television licence is criminalising poverty and women in poverty in particular. In Scotland, the data are not as easy to come by. A Freedom of Information request to the BBC about TV licence convictions in Scotland resulted in the startling admission that the BBC do not collate its own information on TV licence evasion.[4]

Who enforces the TV licence?

On 1 April 1991, the BBC took over the administration of television licensing in the UK, assuming the responsibility of licence fee collection and enforcement. In July 2002, the BBC awarded Capita, an outsourcing firm, the contract to manage the TV Licensing system, replacing the Post Office. In January 2006, the Office of National Statistics classified the licence fee as a tax.[5] Previously, this payment had been designated a service charge. That everyone pays the same tax to the BBC, irrespective of income, is regressive and means that, proportionate to their income, the poor are paying more.

Capita has a £58 million contract with the BBC to enforce payment of the TV licence.[6] Under its incentive scheme its TV Licensing Enquiry Officers are reportedly told to catch more than 28 licence fee evaders each week[7] with each additional person caught bringing a bonus of between £20 and £25.[8] TV Licensing Enquiry Officers are said to be able to earn up to £15,000 through the incentive scheme per annum. [9] This incentivised mode of enforcement of the TV licence has implications for the poorest and most vulnerable in society.

Targeting the poor and the vulnerable

With 30% of all female prosecutions being for non-payment of the TV licence, it is worth considering how much it costs in court time to prosecute non-payment of the TV licence. I imagine it would go a long way to cover the cost of the TV licences in the first place. We must also think about the personal impact on those who, through their poverty, may be forced into the criminal justice system, like Mary below.[10]

Mary’s story

As a woman and the lone mother of a disabled son, Mary has an ongoing struggle to pay her television licence. She is in debt because her income has been reduced due to changes in the benefits system and she cannot cover her essential bills each week. She is behind on her TV licence. This debt only increases when she is fined for non-payment of the licence and, in trying to pay the fine, she cannot pay the licence itself. The TV licensing authorities do not take this into consideration. In year four of the study, Mary says:

‘And I got a fine for my TV licence, an £80 fine. Plus, they wanted me to pay it at £10 a week. So I‘ve to pay £10 a week fine, £10 a week for my TV licence, but I couldn’t pay both, so I was paying a fine obviously because I didn’t want to end up in jail or go to court or something, and I couldn’t pay [the licence itself], so again, I fell into arrears. I tried to explain to them I can’t pay both… But they were having none of it. They were saying that I could go to jail for it. So I fell behind again. The [man] was at my door… I actually said to him “I can’t give you what I’ve not got.” I can’t do it’.

When next we meet in year five of the study, Mary is still struggling with the television licensing authorities who are continuing to fine her and continuing to threaten her with prosecution, making her frightened and forcing her into an unending cycle of debt. This time she says:

‘I’ve not paid it in months. Not paid it in months. They had offered me to pay it…quarterly? Through direct debit, but because I was behind in it, I’ve still got to pay it. But I can’t seem to find that 6 pounds a week. And they were like, “we can’t reduce it anymore, and you’re going to end up getting another fine.” I said, “well if you give me another fine, it’s going to put me down even more.”… But they’re just not listening. Even when you go to Citizen’s Advice or that, they’ll tell you “there’s nothing we can do to help you with a TV licence, it must be paid”. But I’m honest with them when they phone, or come to the door. I’m like, “I can’t pay you.”’

Why women in particular?

The BBC and the TV Licensing Authority recognised that there was a gender disparity in prosecutions for failing to pay the television licence. A review into this gender disparity, undertaken by the BBC itself, found that there is ‘no evidence to suggest that enforcement activity is unfairly and intentionally targeted at women’ and that ‘there is no evidence of any discriminatory enforcement practices on the part of TV licensing’.[11] One of the reasons the BBC gave for the gender disparity was that a female was more likely to ‘engage positively’ with a TV Licensing Enquiry Officer. Let’s explore this a bit further:

  1. If TV Licensing Enquiry Officers target women because they are more likely to engage, often through fear of prosecution and fear that such prosecution might result in losing their children, then this is It is a clear source of bias and discrimination and the intention is irrelevant. It suggests that TV Licensing Enquiry Officers (perhaps unintentionally) pursue female-headed households as they are a soft target for television licence enforcement. Unintended bias is still bias.
  2. Women are at greater risk of non-payment because they are more likely to be on low incomes, whether in or out of work. This interaction with poverty compounds their likelihood of being targeted by TV Licensing Enquiry Officers.
  3. Given that TV Licensing Enquiry Officers are incentivised then there is the potential for unconscious bias in their desire to achieve their targets and receive a bonus.

This is not acceptable. The current model of funding our public sector broadcasting, which results in so many prosecutions of the poor, and of women in particular, is no longer fit for purpose and needs to change. And never has the time been so right for change.

Towards a new funding model

The TV licence was first introduced on 1 June 1946 when a television was a luxury item and only the wealthy could afford one. Therefore, only the rich paid the television licence. Now, having a television is considered an essential part of participating in society.[12] There is almost universal television coverage in the UK and everyone pays the same television licence fee under the age of 75, with the exception of those who are registered blind (but not partially blind), who pay 50% of the annual fee.[13]

After 2020, the UK government will withdraw its funding that gives the over 75s a free TV licence.[14] If the BBC decide not to cover the costs of these free licences itself, it risks pushing the most vulnerable elderly into debt and facing criminal prosecutions, such is the present case with women on low incomes. This is the perfect time to think about a new funding model.

What would a new model look like?

Given that the TV licence is officially a tax, it would make sense for it to come out of general taxation, even if that means a small (e.g. a fraction of a percentage point) increase in income tax, so that it would be made fairer. This would mean that those earning the least in society, for example those on the National Living Wage, would pay a very small percentage of their income to the TV licence. It would mean that pensioners who rely on the state pension would not pay, nor would those on disability benefits, nor lone parents with young children or those on out of work benefits. Instead, it would only be those who are earn the most, and wealthy pensioners, who would pay. This would still be a small proportion of overall salary. It would make the question of what will happen to the over 75s post-2020 redundant and would take 30% of criminal prosecutions for women out of the criminal justice system. It would cease to penalise and criminalise poverty. And it would remove the costs associated with prosecuting those who cannot afford to pay.

At the present time the mode of watching TV is changing, for example, to on-demand providers. This is a change that sees the younger generation watching on-demand services more than they do BBC services,[15] which is a change that will continue to gather pace. A fair question that will be asked in future is ‘why should we pay the BBC when we don’t watch its programmes’? This will potentially lead to a funding crisis that can be averted with sensible action now.

There is a role for a public service broadcaster in the UK, one whose funding is fairer than the present system. That is why I would not advocate a subscription service for the BBC. But the current method of funding it, one that leads to discrimination against women and the economically disadvantaged, and criminalises them, has to change. Otherwise, as the change in the way we watch television continues, and there is more dissent over the regressive and unfair nature of the TV licence fee tax, support for the BBC will continue to decline. We would risk no longer having a public service broadcaster.




[2]Ministry of Justice, 2018 ‘Women and the criminal justice system 2017’

[3] Ministry of Justice, 2018 ‘Women and the criminal justice system 2017’


[5] “Further Issues for BBC Charter Review” House of Lords Session Report. The Stationery Office Limited. 3 March 2006.


[7] ibid


[9] ibid


[11] BBC, 2017 Gender disparity report: TV licensing

[12] EU, Material Deprivation Indicators 2018




WOLFF, J. & DE-SHALIT, A. 2007. Disadvantage, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

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