David Cameron plans to decriminalise watching TV without paying the licence fee, it has been reported.
It is currently against the law to watch or record live TV programmes without a licence, and the offence can lead to prosecution, a court appearance and a fine of up to £1,000.
The Conservatives have previously dropped attempts to make the offence punishable only by a fine, amid concerns it would make people more likely to skip paying and cost the BBC £200 million a year.
But the move would also save up to 300,000 people a year from a criminal record, and on Tuesday the Prime Minister’s spokesman said Mr Cameron still views the enforcement as heavy-handed and wants it changed.
It comes following front-page headlines that suggest the Tory government will “go to war with the BBC”, after Mr Cameron appointed John Whittingdale as Culture Secretary. At the time, Downing Street sources were quoted as saying the veteran MP would “sort out the BBC”.
Mr Whittingdale, who was previously chair of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee, has made no secret of his belief that the licence fee is in need of reform, describing it as “worse than the poll tax”.
The BBC’s royal charter is to be reviewed next year, and one of Mr Whittingdale’s most important jobs in his new role will be to consider the future of the £145.50-a-year TV licence.
Sajid Javid, the new Business Secretary and former Culture Secretary, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday that there was “a bit of over-excitement” in reports of how the Conservatives would take on the BBC.
“I think it's time to have the charter review,” he said. “[But] it's a process that will take place over a number of months and it should be driven by the evidence.
“When it comes to long-term funding of the BBC, clearly there have been lots of changes in the broadcasting environment, not least technology changes, and I think it's sensible to look at that to make sure the BBC is on a sustainable long-term funding arrangement and I know John is just the right person for that job.”
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