Labour set to back TV licence fee powers change
Labour is set to back plans to give ministers powers to decriminalise non-payment of the BBC licence fee, giving the move cross-party political support.
It has already got government backing although any final decision on the issue is unlikely before the summer of 2015 at the earliest.
It is understood Labour wants any move to a system of civil penalties to be piloted before being implemented.
The BBC has said a "proper review" of future options must be carried out.
At the moment, people can be sent to jail in connection with not paying the annual licence fee, which is used to fund BBC programmes and other output.
A TV licence, which is required if a user watches or records live broadcasts on any device in the UK, costs £145.50 per year.
Those who refuse to pay face a £1,000 fine and a criminal record, as well as the prospect of jail if fines are not paid.
The BBC's political correspondent Gary O'Donoghue outlined a possible timeline:
- Step one: On Tuesday MPs are expected to vote to give the government, in the Deregulation Bill, the power to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee
- Step two: The bill still has several stages to complete including being put through the House of Lords, so summer is the earliest likely date for the bill becoming law
- Step three: If it gets through Parliament, the proposal says there should be a review, completed within a year, of how a civil penalty - basically a fine - would work, before the change is made
- Step four: The best guess for the point at which ministers will decide whether to go through with decriminalisation is, at the earliest, the summer of 2015, after the general election.
Labour has signalled its likely support for the move.
"We are strong supporters of the BBC but it is very difficult to justify sending someone to prison for not paying the licence fee," party sources said.
Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen, who has led calls for decriminalisation, welcomed Labour's backing, saying at least 150 backbenchers also supported the idea, in addition to ministers.
He said "it was not a question of whether it would be decriminalised but how and when".
Under the MP's plan, ministers would be able to replace existing sanctions with "civil monetary penalties" under "statutory instrument" - meaning no further Act of Parliament was needed.
This power could be used only during a two-year period, starting from the completion of the proposed review. After that it would require approval by both Houses of Parliament.
The Ministry of Justice has said that 164,932 people were found guilty of TV licence evasion in 2012 and 51 went to prison for not paying subsequent fines.
Mr Bridgen said this amounted to one in nine cases before magistrates' courts.
Chancellor George Osborne said the idea of decriminalisation was "very interesting" and would be looked at "closely".
"It is getting more and more support across the parties and you can see it's all heading in a particular direction," he told Sky News.
The BBC's strategy director James Purnell said the impact on magistrates' courts of the current arrangement was less than feared.
"The last fact we saw was that it took up 0.3% of [court] time because most of these cases are processed pretty quickly - about three minutes on average," he told BBC Radio 4's PM.
He said the present system "works pretty well", but added: "We are happy to work with government to see if it can be improved or whether there is an alternative that could be better."
The BBC's royal charter, which sets out the corporation's purposes and the way it is run, is reviewed every 10 years and the current one runs until the end of 2016.
Earlier this month, Mr Purnell had warned BBC channels could close if non-payment of the licence fee was decriminalised.
He said it would be a "huge risk" which would increase non-payment and cost the BBC £200m a year in lost licence fee revenue.