Tuesday 24 January 2017

TV Licence Evaders To Face Harsh Sentences

TV Licence

Thousands of people convicted of not paying their television licence could be let off with a slap on the wrist after a change in the sentencing guidelines was announced.

From April anyone prosecuted for not having a valid licence could avoid an automatic fine by receiving a conditional discharge instead.

The move is intended to take account of those people who cannot afford to pay a court fine, as well as showing some leniency to those who are considered to be the least serious offenders.

But while the move has been welcomed by those who wish to see the offence decriminalised, it is feared it could encourage mass non-payment of TV licences by whose who consider the annual £145.50 fee to be a regressive tax.

With more than 180,000 people charged with not paying their licence fee each year, prosecutions currently account for around one in 10 of all criminal cases in England and Wales.

More than 99 per cent of all those convicted receive a fine of up to £1,000, which nets the government almost £30 million a year.

Anyone refusing to pay a fine could be sent to prison and at least 70 people have received custodial sentences in recent years. Prison sentences are imposed as a punishment for not paying the fine, rather than non-payment of the licence fee.

But under new guidelines issued by the Sentencing Council, magistrates are being offered more flexibility when dishing out punishments.

Instead of issuing a financial penalty they will have the option to impose a conditional discharge, meaning an offender would walk free from court and would only receive a further punishment if they committed another offence within a set period of time.

According to the new guidelines, conditional discharges would be deemed appropriate in cases where an offender has made a genuine mistake in not obtaining a licence, or has only been without one for a very short period of time.

Magistrates will also be permitted to apply their discretion in situations where the defendant had been experiencing "significant financial hardship" at the time due to "exceptional circumstances".

But Philip Davies, a Tory MP, who used to sit on the Media, Culture and Sport Select Committee, said this could signal a green light for people to stop paying the licence fee.

He said: "There is a growing unhappiness about the licence fee and being forced to pay for something whether they want it or not."

Mr Davies added: "This is a further nail in the coffin of the licence fee, because the more it becomes unenforceable, the more the BBC will have to find another method of funding.

"The sooner the BBC get a grip on reality and recognise move to a subscription model the better. If they are so convinced of its value for money then they have nothing to fear from such a move."

Andrew Bridgen, who has led calls for the decriminalisation of the non-payment of the licence fee, said he welcomed the move but felt it did not go far enough.

He said: "If someone cannot afford to pay the £145.50 licence then they are highly unlikely to be in a position to pay a £1,000 fine. People are being criminalised where their only crime is being poor and this needs to stop."

Former Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, said: “In principle I am quite sympathetic to the idea. Where you have people who are genuinely struggling to pay, issuing a large fine or sending them to prison does not seem to serve any purpose.

“For the magistrates to be able to take greater account of circumstances and look for alternatives seems to me to be very sensible.

“I would hope it would not signal a green light for people not to pay but I understand the BBC might be concerned that this would significantly increase evasion."

A spokesman for TV licensing denied that the move would usher in a mass non-payment movement.

The spokesman said: “We do not believe that this will have material impact, as we already offer a conditional discharge where first-time offenders who buy a licence before their case comes to court are not prosecuted.

“Given that, we think a further conditional discharge from magistrates will only be used in a very limited number of circumstances.

“We would prefer people to buy a licence rather than be prosecuted but we will prosecute persistent evaders. This step does not change the nature of the enforcement of the licence fee.”

A spokesman for the campaign group, Christians Against Poverty, said: "Magistrates will now have that extra flexibility when faced with someone who hasn’t paid their licence because 'exceptional circumstances' have caused 'significant financial hardship’.

"We see financial hardship every day and it usually looks like people fleeing domestic violence; people who suddenly have to leave work to look after a sick family member.

"Of course, people should pay for their licence, but it is really good to know that our society can afford leniency towards people already suffering.”



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