The BBC has claimed the government plans to decriminalize licence fee evasion in the UK could blow a £300M ($370M) hole in its programming budget and will lead to “significant cuts” to front line services.
The BBC made its case in a submission to the government’s consultation on scrapping criminal sanctions, including jail sentences, for people who fail to pay the £154.50 annual licence fee.
It said that a switch to civil sanctions would result in licence fee evasion jumping to 10%, according to independent research commissioned by the corporation, while it added that the running costs of a new system would be much higher.
Put together, this would cost the BBC £300M, it said. This has been revised up from a previous estimate of £200M when the government conducted a similar review of decriminalizing licence fee evasion back in 2015.
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The BBC said: “The costs to the BBC would therefore amount to more than £1 billion over the remainder of the Charter period from 2022 to 2027. This would inevitably require significant cuts to BBC programmes and services. It would also reduce substantially the BBC’s investment in the UK’s creative economy across the whole UK, including the nations and English regions.”
The government has previously argued that it is necessary that licence fee collection is updated. Former culture secretary Nicky Morgan said in February that the time has come to “make sure the TV licence fee remains relevant in this changing media landscape,” adding that “many people” feel that criminal sanctions for evaders “punishes the vulnerable.”
Since February, however, the world has changed significantly amid the coronavirus pandemic. The BBC has been lauded as a valuable public service during the chaos of the crisis, and government attitudes towards the broadcaster appeared to have softened, with ministers now appearing on flagship shows, like Radio 4’s Today program, after a brief boycott.
The BBC touched on this in its consultation submission. “Recent events mean that the focus of the Government, the BBC, stakeholders, and the public has rightly been elsewhere,” it said. “The BBC is a national asset and has a critical role to play for the UK. It is at the heart of the public service broadcasting system – something that is now more vital than ever.”
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