There has been a groundswell of support in the press for the proposal to decriminalise non-payment of the TV licence. Part is based on concerns that people should not be made into criminals for not having enough money to pay their bills, but there are other issues in the debate. The first problem is how to fund the BBC without compromising its independence. The second problem is how the money can be raised. The current licence fee is, to all intents and purposes, a tax on households; but it is cumbersome and desperately unfair. The flat rate charge penalises the poor. There is a presumption that everyone will receive the services, and there is an aggressive system of debt collection based on that presumption, which is only partly successful.
I am going to accept two key propositions. The first is that the BBC is a public service. Many services it provides – not TV, which is restricted to licence payers, but radio, internet and infrastructure – are there for everyone who wants to use them; that could be true for TV, too. It may be objected that not everyone wishes to use the service, or can; not everyone can use a park, or a road, or a school, but that is not a reason why we should not treat them as a public service. It’s right, then, that there should be a charge to everyone. The second proposition is that this should not be done through central government taxation, because that would make the BBC directly accountable to central government. Any system needs to be managed at arm’s length.
We do, however, have alternative mechanisms in place which satisfy both of these requirements, and which would be fairer and less burdensome than the current licence system. The Council Tax includes an element for another public service, which is water; local authorities collect water rates as agents for the water companies. If the TV licence was bundled in to that, it would be more progressive and easier to enforce. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t also be eligible for Council Tax Reduction, reducing the cost to people on lower incomes, but that is open to discussion.
This suggestion is an example of a general principle in benefits, taxation and social administration: the practical way to do things is often to take advantage of an existing mechanism. It’s not an ideal solution, but nothing ever is.