A very pleasant surprise as we awaken this morning to find that decriminalisation of TV licence evasion is back on the agenda.
Sky News is currently giving this subject particular prominence, highlighting the fact that TV licence evasion accounts for almost 1-in-9 cases before the Magistrates' Courts. It also mentions, quite correctly, that The Magistrates' Association has been campaigning for decades to decriminalise an offence they view as both unjust and an unnecessary burden on valuable court resources.
The law requires that any property where equipment is used to receive TV programmes services must be covered by a valid TV licence. Revenue from the fee is used almost exclusively to fund the frivolous spending habits of the BBC, which includes the recent £100 million abandonment of the much-maligned Digital Media Initiative.
The licence-fee is a regressive form of taxation. It penalises the most those that can afford to pay the least. Women are twice as likely to be convicted of TV licence evasion as men; those on benefits are twice as likely to be convicted as those in employment.
Last year a Bill seeking to decriminalise TV licence evasion was laid before Parliament. The BBC Licence Fee (Civil Debt) Bill 2013-14 was the brainchild of Conservative Philip Hollobone MP, who represents the good people of Kettering.
As a Private Member's Bill it was never likely to make it to the statute books, and sure enough the Bill was killed before its second Commons reading earlier this year. Despite its now defunct status, the Bill did serve the very useful purpose of keeping BBC incompetence and corruption firmly in the Parliamentary eye.
According to today's Telegraph article more than 100 backbench MPs now support the idea of decriminalising licence-fee evasion. Crucially, the Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, and Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, are also said to favour such a change in the law.
Mr Grayling told the Telegraph: "The Culture Secretary and I both agree that this is a really interesting idea - particularly given the pressure on our courts system. Our departments will be doing some serious work on the proposal."
Unsurprisingly the BBC, which currently receives £3.6 billion of licence-fee revenue on a silver platter, has given the plans a lukewarm reception. A BBC spokesman is quoted as saying: "Legislation is a matter for the Government, however changing the law could lead to higher evasion. Just a 1 per cent increase in evasion would lead to the loss of around £35 million, the equivalent of around 10 BBC Local Radio stations."
Whether anyone would actually notice the disappearance of 10 BBC local radio stations remains a point for debate, but £35 million is roughly the same amount the BBC spends on "Red Button" interactive TV services.
As TV Licensing contractor Capita Business Services Ltd currently makes £50-100 in court fees for each successful prosecution, we don't suppose they'll be too happy with a change in the law either.