It has been proposed that evading the television licence fee should be made a civil rather than criminal offence due to the draconian nature of criminal proceedings for such an offence, although the BBC have expressed concerns that it will increase levels of evasions, potentially costing £200 million.
But a far simpler and less problematic solution is available. Abolish the licence fee and have payment through general taxation. The licence fee is an outdated concept that adds an extra layer of complexity to people’s lives, and I think we’d be better off without it. By using the graduated taxation system, it would also become more progressive, as there is currently a set fee for everyone regardless of personal wealth or income.
What reasons could there be for keeping the current licensing system? Arguably payment through general taxation would be unfair. Some people don’t have televisions, and yet they would still have to fund the BBC. However, the current system is unfair anyway, and the change would make it no less unfair. Currently, you don’t have to buy a television licence to access many services that are paid for through the licence fee. This includes BBC radio, the BBC iPlayer and the BBC website. It is only television, or simultaneous internet transmission, that you watch while it is being broadcast that incurs the fee. You also have to pay the licence fee for watching programmes on any channel, not just those paid for by the BBC licence fee. In other words, you can use services funded by the licence fee and not have to pay, or not use any services funded by the licence fee and yet have to pay anyway. Since the licence does not work in the interests of fairness, it makes more sense to have simpler payment through general taxation, which I see as far less of a sledgehammer approach. It will never be the case that everyone will get equal use out of every state-funded organisation anyway, but I think it would be wrong to begrudge this or demand that there be an individual licence for each of these.
If the BBC was paid for through taxes, there is the concern that it would lose its independence and become government television. However, the licence fee is officially considered to be a tax, so the argument isn’t technically valid. Regardless, I think these fears are unfounded. Many organisations receive state funding but retain their independence, such as universities and arts councils. Also, if clear guidelines are laid down, it really makes no difference if the money comes from a licence fee or from general taxation. And the BBC trustees are currently not selected independently from government anyway.
There is also the argument that some have made that there should be nothing special about the BBC, so it should just be paid for by adverts or through a specific BBC subscription. This change is much bigger than what I am proposing and would require far more debate, and would be unlikely to happen for years anyway. The change I am proposing today would not affect the day-to-day running of the BBC, but would eliminate a layer of complexity from our lives, and the problem of payment evasion (above and beyond general tax evasion of course), so would be a quick win all round. There is a good case for this change regardless of where you stand on the BBC in general.