MPs and prison governors said it was 'absolutely crazy' to lock up licence fee dodgers in overcrowded jails. They called on BBC governors to seek other remedies and said Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, must act.
In 1991, the first year in which figures were collected, 394 people were jailed (136 of them women) for failing to pay the fine - a maximum of pounds 1,000 - imposed by magistrates for having television without an pounds 83 licence. Last year, 845 (including 292 women) were imprisoned. The typical sentence was 14 days.
Alun Michael, the Labour home affairs spokesman, said it was absurd to treat the non-payment of a television licence like a criminal offence. The BBC's television licensing unit should act like any other creditor, seeking to have non-payers' goods seized or income docked by the civil courts. 'Even Mr Howard must realise that it's a huge waste of public money locking these people up,' he said. It costs about pounds 500 a week to keep a prisoner in jail. Conservative Alan Howarth, who helped write a Commons National Heritage Select Committee report on the future of the BBC last year, said the figures were 'disturbing' and called for consideration to be given to subsiding the licence fees of the poor.
The Prison Governors' Association, which warned last week that overcrowding could 'plunge the jails into chaos', added that they had enough problems without having to cope with people who had not paid fines.
Although women are 3 per cent of the prison population, they are a third of the jailed licence evaders. Harry Fletcher, from the National Association of Probation Officers, said: 'Often it is the women who have to run household budgets and face the consequences when money runs short. Jail for a woman who has to worry about her children can be devastating.'
A spokeswoman for the television licensing unit said the BBC did not accept responsibility; its administrators helped present cases, but magistrates decided on sentences.