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Equity "extremely concerned" over decriminlisation of licence fee avoidance

10 April 2014

Equity General Secretary Christine Payne has written to John Whittingdale MP, Chair of the Commons Culture Select Committee, expressing "extreme concern" at the prospect of immediate decriminalisation of non-payment of theTV licence fee.

Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen made the proposal for immediate decriminlisation early in March and got support from around 150 other MPs from across the House. After some intial enthusiasm, on 20 March the Government announced instead a year-long review into whether people whoudl be fined and, in some circumstances, jailed for not paying tge TV licence fee.

It has been estimated that decrminilsation could cost the BBC up to £200 million a year in lost revenue resulting in less production and the loss of some channels.

In her letter, Christine Payne acknowledges the "political consensus that has emerged around the joint amendment to the Deregulation Bill put down by Andrew Bridgen and the Solicitor-General which ensures that a review of the television licensing enforcement regime will be conducted to ascertain whether the criminal regime remains appropriate and proportionate." She expresses hope that the review will enable the consequences of decriminalisation to be "fully and carefully considered".

"Equity believes that it is essential that the forthcoming review goes no further than its specific and limited terms of reference," she writes. "We would be extremely concerned were the review to extend beyond an examination of the sanctions that are appropriate in respect of contraventions of section 363 of the Communications Act 2003. The review is not and should not be about appraising the principle of the license fee itself.

"However, within the context of examining sanctions it is imperative that the review takes a broad enough approach to enable full and careful examination of the implications for the BBC of any move towards a regime of civil rather than criminal enforcement for the non­payment of the licence fee. A narrow appraisal that examines the impact of criminal prosecutions on the Magistrates Courts and on those convicted of an offence without considering the broader consequences of decriminalisation on the BBC's income, output and its contribution to the success of the UK's creative industries would undermine the political consensus that has built up which is broadly supportive of the review. Equity therefore welcomes the assurances given by the Solicitor-General which confirm that the review will take account of the full impacts of any proposed new civil enforcement regime on the BBC itself.

"Equity's overarching concern is to ensure the future of a well-funded and independent BBC. The BBC is one of the most significant employers of Equity members and it plays an integral role as a producer and commissioner of original UK programming content for audiences across a wide range of formats and genres. It showcases the UK to the rest of the world, plays a crucial role in our economy, both as an employer and an exporter of goods and acts as a standard bearer for the audio-visual sector in terms of quality, diversity and innovation. Given this, we would not want to see the review used by those who are opposed to the values of the BBC and the contribution it makes to public service broadcasting as an opportunity by which to undermine its standing and financial stability by the back door."

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