Television viewers caught dodging the BBC licence fee should face greater fines if they have been watching Sky or other subscription channels, magistrates were told yesterday.
- Fines could double for those paying bills for competitor pay-TV services
- Crack down on licence dodgers paying for Sky, BT TV, Netflix or Amazon
- Means 180,000 people a year may be subjected to heavier or doubled fines
Fines for failing to pay the licence fee – which can run up to £1,000 – may be doubled for viewers who have been meeting bills for the BBC’s competitor pay-TV services.
The proposal to crack down harder on licence dodgers who pay for subscriptions to services from Sky, BT TV, Netflix or Amazon and others was made by the Sentencing Council (30s Germany?), the body dominated by judges which lays down rules on punishments for judges and magistrates (Netflix etc doesn’t require a TV Licence as it doesn’t have live feeds)
It means many of the 180,000 people a year convicted by the courts for not paying the licence fee that funds the BBC may be subjected to heavier or doubled fines from this autumn.
The new rules amount to an increased deterrent to those who hope to avoid paying.
The instruction to JPs sets up a potential double whammy for licence fee dodgers, thanks to plans in the Government’s White Paper on the future of the BBC, which was published last week.
The White Paper put out by Culture Secretary John Whittingdale said that satellite, cable and internet TV companies should be made to pass details of their subscribers on to the Corporation’s fee collection arm, TV Licensing.
As a result those detected evading the licence fee because of information provided to BBC by their subscriber service could find themselves paying a double fine to magistrates simply because they are subscribers.
The Sentencing Council, led by Lord Chief Justice Lord Thomas and Appeal judge Lord Justice Treacy, included the TV licence proposal in a large-scale revamp of sentencing rules for 27 common offences dealt with by magistrates.
Magistrates courts hear the great bulk of criminal cases and can set maximum sentences of six months’ jail.
Around 13 per cent of all the cases that go before magistrates are TV licence dodging prosecutions.
The consultation paper said of the new rules on licence dodger sentencing: ‘The Council identified demand for more guidance in relation to this offence. This is provided in the proposed culpability factors.’
It did not specify from where the demand came.
New culpability factors, which will go into operation in the courts in the autumn if the proposals are approved, say that the crime will be considered more serious if the dodger has not tried to buy a licence; if they have tried to evade detection; and if they ‘had additional subscription television service.’
The effect will be that JPs will consider a licence dodger who is a Sky or Netflix subscriber to have committed a Category Two crime rather than the lesser Category Three offence of which they would currently be guilty.
A Category Three crime gets a Band A fine – typically calculated as half a week’s pay – but magistrates sentencing for a Category Two offence will be told to take a Band B fine as their starting point when considering the sentence.
Band B fines begin at three quarters of a week’s salary and run up to one and a quarter times the weekly pay of the offender.
For dodgers who have failed to pay for a TV licence for more than six months the offence will be Category One, which would mean the fine would be at the top of the Band B range.
The higher fines provoked fury among Tory MPs who are critical of the BBC, many of whom believe Mr Whittingdale’s White Paper, which preserved the licence fee and allowed it to go up with inflation, let the Corporation off the hook.
Shipley MP Philip Davies said: ‘It is amazing that this idea has come from the Sentencing Council, which is full of left-wing and liberal lawyers and judges who want to reduce sentences all the time.
‘The one thing they will get tough over is paying your TV licence fee. The offence of not paying your TV licence fee should be decriminalised. It should not be an offence at all.’
Criminologist Dr David Green of the Civitas think tank said: ‘This means you will be punished more severely if you choose a rival service.
‘You choose to pay something you think is better, and you are punished more severely for that. I think the competition authorities will take a dim view of this.
‘It is a serious abuse of judicial power to punish people for exercising consumer choice. Whoever has written these guidelines has been seduced by the BBC and its commercial interests.’
Sentencing Council member and magistrate Jill Gramann said: ‘Our revision of the guidelines will ensure magistrates in England and Wales have clear guidance using a consistent approach to help them sentence fairly and proportionately.’
The Sentencing Council was formed in 2010 from earlier advisory bodies for judges and magistrates. Its 14 members include eight judges, a senior lawyer, a JP, and Director of Public Prosecutions Alison Saunders.
It has largely avoided the controversy that followed its predecessor bodies, which were frequently accused of easing sentences. However, last week the Council said young thieves and thugs should get lighter punishments in the Youth Court if they come from bad or broken families.