A public consultation on whether failure to pay for a TV licence should stop being a criminal offence has been launched by the government.
But what exactly is the licence fee – and who needs one?
How much is the licence fee and what is it for?
Today, the TV licence costs £154.50 a year (£52 for black and white TV sets) and will rise by £3 in April.
The licence fee’s existence is guaranteed until at least 31 December 2027 by the BBC’s Royal Charter. This sets out the BBC’s funding and purpose.
The BBC provides public service broadcasting – which means its mission is “to act in the public interest” by providing “impartial, high-quality and distinctive” content, which “inform, educate and entertain” all audiences.
Money raised from the licence fee pays for BBC shows and services – including TV, radio, the BBC website, podcasts, iPlayer and apps. Almost £3.7bn was raised by the licence fee in 2019, accounting for about 76% of the BBC’s total income of £4.9bn.
The remaining 25% (or £1.2bn) came from commercial and other activities (such as grants, royalties and rental income), according to the House of Commons Library.
What happens if people don’t pay the licence fee?
Watching live programmes without a TV licence fee is against the law.
In 2018, more than 121,000 people were convicted for evasion, with five of them going to prison. The average fine was £176, but the maximum penalty is £1,000, plus legal costs and/or compensation.
Last year, there were about 26.2 million TV licences in use in the UK. About 7% of people who need a licence do not have one.
The government is now considering decriminalising non-payment of the licence fee by 2022. Announcing the consultation, Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan said it was time to think about keeping the fee “relevant” in a “changing media landscape”.
Lord Hall, who is stepping down as the BBC’s director general, defended the charge, saying the corporation’s success lies in it “being paid for and owned by the British public”.
Decriminalisation would not mean that having a licence is voluntary, but failing to pay could become a civil offence, similar to non-payment of council tax or electricity bills.
Do I have to pay for a TV licence?
The law says that you must have a TV licence if you:
- watch or record live TV programmes on any channel, even if it’s not on the BBC
- watch or stream programmes live on an online TV service such as ITV Hub, All 4, YouTube, Amazon Prime Video, Now TV and Sky Go
- download or watch any BBC programmes on iPlayer
The rules apply to any device on which a programme is viewed, including a TV, desktop or laptop computer, mobile phone, tablet or set-top box.
So, for example, someone watching a live football match on a non-BBC channel via a laptop, would still need a TV licence.
But a licence fee is not needed to view BBC programmes on other streaming services, like Netflix.
So, downloading Gavin & Stacey on Netflix would not require a TV licence, whereas downloading the same episode on iPlayer would.
It is also fine to watch non-BBC programmes on online catch-up services without a TV licence, as well as viewing clips on sites like YouTube, according to the government website.
What about over-75s?
Until the end of May this year, everyone aged over 75 receives a free TV licence – which they have to apply for – paid for by the UK government.
However, this is changing from the start of June, when the BBC will become responsible for paying for it.
The corporation will fund a free licence for any household where someone aged over 75 receives pension credit. More than 1.5 million households could qualify to keep their free licence in this way, but up to 3.7 million people will lose their free licences.
In October, a cross-party group of MPs called for free TV licences to be restored to everyone over the age of 75.
Funding free TV licences for all over-75s would have resulted in “unprecedented closures”, the BBC said in June.