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Michael Gove calls for license fee non-payment to be decriminalised

Proposals have been put forward to introduce a civil fine rather than take cases through the court system

The Justice secretary, Michael Gove, has called for prosecutions for non-payment of the BBC license fee to be decriminalised because they are overburdening the courts.

The move follows concerns that criminal cases against people who fail to pay their licence fees are creating a disproportionate burden on the criminal system with the offence currently accounting for around one in 10 cases at magistrate’s courts.

Gove has approached John Whittingdale, the culture secretary, to argue that decriminalisation could ease the caseload of magistrates’ courts which currently have to deal with 1.5m cases each year, 180,000 of which are for the non-payment of the TV licence.

Shortly after the election, Downing Street indicated that it backed the idea of replacing prosecution with a civil fine, however the BBC argued that it would lose up to £200m a year as a result of non-payment. A BBC spokesman at the time said the current system “is broadly fair, proportionate and provides good value for both licence fee payers and taxpayers.”

In July Gove gave evidence to the justice select committee on how to lift the burden on magistrates, saying “one area which is a live area of debate is whether or not, at the bottom of the magistrates courts’ work, television licence non-payment should be decriminalised.”

The license fee remains a source of concern for the BBC as an accelerating number of people continue to opt out of it in favour of online TV subscription services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. A recent survey by TubeMogul found that 60 per cent of Brits want it to be scrapped altogether and replaced with advertising revenue.

Gove’s proposals are attempting to address his concerns about how to manage the spending cuts which have hit the Ministry of Justice and could see it treated similar to how other non-payment of bills are dealt with including water, gas and electricity charges.

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