Criminalising television licence evasion.
by Christina Pantazis
Television licence evasion was traditionally a neglected area of criminological interest. In response to the substantial growth in prosecutions and the consequential growth in the number of people imprisoned for defaulting on fines originally imposed for television licence offences, academic interest in this area of criminology has expanded in recent years (Wall and Bradshaw 1987; Gordon and Pantazis 1994; Wall and Bradshaw 1994; Pantazis and Gordon 1997). Like many other summary offences, television licence evasion was ignored because it was considered 'not really a crime'.(see also The Human Cost of the Licence Fee)
The purpose of the licence fee is to provide income for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) radio and television services. Under the Wireless Telegraphy Acts anyone using or owning 'with intent to use' a television to watch any channel (including satelite or cable) or to record and watch video tapes needs a licence which currently costs L 91.50. In comparison to the price of second hand televisions, the cost of the licence is relatively expensive, compounded by the fact of it being an annual expense. Each year, a substantial minority of householders risk prosecution through evasion.
Figure 1 illustrates that between 1980 and 1994 there has been a substantial growth in the number of prosecutions for television licence offences, an increase from 46,100 to 188,500. Gender distinctions began to emerge in the early 1980s. Whilst in 1980, an approximately equal number of women and men were prosecuted for licence evasion (22,600 and 23,500 respectively), by 1994 prosecutions had increased to 69,000 for men and to 119,500 for women. By 1994, 63 per cent of total prosecutions for television Licence offences involved women.
Prosecutions for television licence evasion grew to such an extent over the 1980s and 1990s, that by 1994, these offences formed the largest single instance of all female crime. Figure 2 shows that between 1980 and 1994 the proportion of female convictions for television licence evasion offences grew from 17 per cent to 57 per cent, whilst male convictions grew from 2.7 per cent to 9.9 per cent. Thus, convictions for television licence offences as a proportion of all other offences increased across the board between 1980 and 1994 but more markedly for women.
More women than men are featured in the statistics for television licence offences as a result of an interaction between the detection procedures used and women's domestic routines. Women are less likely to have full-time employment, and therefore are more likely to be caught at home when television license officers make their enquiries. Suspected unlicensed households are visited by enquiry officers between Monday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.1 It is the person who happens to be around to speak to the officer who is liable for prosecution. Whilst the initial enquiry will involve the officer asking to speak to the person named on the last held licence, the official policy is now that husbands and wives are treated equally so that the person prosecuted is the partner who is prepared to be interviewed (Walker and Wall 1997).
Thus, a prosecution policy introduced in the early 1980s designed to treat men and women equally by no longer targeting the men as the head of the household has resulted in a disproportionate criminalisation of women.
Demographic factors have also contributed to this process. This period has witnessed a significant increase in the proportion of female-headed households, thereby increasing the number of women who are potentially liable for investigation. Whilst the proportion of households constituted of married couples has fallen from 32 per cent in 1981 to 24 per cent in 1995, single parent households have increased from 4 per cent to 7 per cent and the number of single person households has risen from 22 per cent to 28 per cent over the same period (Rowlands et al. 1997). These types of households are more likely to be headed by women. However, not only did the number of these types of households increase over this period, but their chances of living in poverty was greater than that of most other households (Bradshaw and Millar 1991; Walker 1992; Dowler and Calvert 1995).
For instance, one survey found that 55 per cent of female single parent households were living in circumstances of severe deprivation in 1990 (Payne and Pantazis 1997).
Several studies have confirmed the economically disadvantaged position of many television licence evasion offenders (Central Office of Information 1985; Wall and Bradshaw 1987). In a Home Office study, the main reason given by offenders for not having a licence when approached by the TV licence officer was financial (Softley 1984). Furthermore, where financial details were available, one third claimed that the head of the defendant's household was unemployed at the time of their hearing. Twenty eight per cent of evaders were single parents, separated or divorced.
The increase in the number of households whose members lived in poverty, and the consequential increase in the number of those unable to afford TV licences explains why prosecutions for licence evasion increased to such an extent over the 1980s and 1990s (Wall and Bradshaw 1987; Pantazis and Gordon 1994). Other reasons such as increases in the actual level of the licence fee, more effective policing by the TV licence authorities, an increase in criminality and wickedness have been discounted (Wall and Bradshaw 1987; Pantazis and Gordon 1997).
It has further been suggested that prosecution policies serve to disfavour the poor by giving householders with financial means, under some circumstances, the opportunity to avoid prosecution (Walker and Wall 1997). These opportunities include:
Where, in circumstances of non-renewal, the licence is purchased and short-dated to cover the period of unlicensed use (unless there is a previous warning or conviction within the past three years), where a licence is purchased on the day of the visit and the only provable use is for that day and where there has been a 'short term' evasion, provided a licence is purchased immediately and (if an evasion of six weeks or more is established) the period of unlicensed use is also covered. Not surprisingly, the people who do eventually make the transition from notice to prosecution to an appearance in the magistrates' court are disproportionately poor, unemployed, single parents and females predominate in that social group. (Walker and Wall 1997: 179)
Furthermore, it may be argued that prosecution policies also serve to highlight the traditional distinction made between the 'deserving' and the 'undeserving' poor. This can clearly be seen in the prosecution policy document which states that it would not be in the public interest to prosecute certain groups, i.e. persons under 18 years, persons over 65 years, and the infirm.2 On the other hand, it appears that the prosecution of the unemployed and single parent mothers, groups traditionally seen as the 'undeserving poor', is acceptable.
Punishing the poor
A fine is the most frequently used punishment in the criminal justice system. This, again, is an instance of the 'crime of poverty' considered in this chapter: the fine is imposed on almost all perpetrators of television licence evasion offences, regardless of their gender. Thus, in 1994, 98% of television licence offenders were fined.
Whilst the fine is recovered in most cases, some individuals will default by not paying the fine within the period of time specified by the court. At this stage, the court may sentence them to a term of imprisonment depending on the amount to be paid still outstanding. The court may do this if it is:
a) satisfied that the default is due to the offender's wilful refusal or culpable neglect it b) has considered or tried all other methods of enforcing payment of the sum and it appears to the court that they are inappropriate or unsuccessful.
A report on the imprisonment of fine defaulters claimed that:
defaulters on low incomes are often imprisoned on the grounds of 'culpable neglect', as the court judges that they have spent money on other priorities than the fine. Many such defaulters are in practice imprisoned because of an inability to manage on a low income. (Penal Affairs Consortium 1995:3)
A number of studies have pointed out the material difficulties faced by defaulters of fines. One study based on 35 case studies of defaulters (including television licence evaders) showed most of the defaulters to be out of work, often for more than twelve months (National Association of Probation Officers 1994). Most were living on State benefits and had multiple debts. Most offenders end up defaulting on their fines because they need the money for things such as shoes and clothing, food and housekeeping, rent, rates, unspecified bills, light and heating, and public transport (Softley 1978). The crucial problem appears to be that offenders are given fines that they simply cannot afford to pay. This is in spite of the fact that courts are required to take into account the offender's means in the setting of fines.
Table I shows the number of people imprisoned for defaulting on fines for television licence evasion by gender between 1991 and 1995. Over the 1990s there has been a sharp increase in the number of persons imprisoned for defaulting on fines for television licence evasion, from 394 to 749. There were 235 females and 493 males imprisoned for fine defaulting on television licence evasion offences in 1995.
Table I Offenders imprisoned for defaulting on fines for television licence evasion by gender, England and Wales 1991-1995
||Numbers imprisoned for fine default
Source: Research and Statistics Directorate, Home Office.
Previous research has revealed that the most common length of sentences for both men and women was one week (Pantazis and Gordon 1997). In 1994, 62% of women fine defaulters, as opposed to only 57% of men, were sentenced to prison for up to a week. Thus, women appear to receive marginally shorter sentences. Furthermore, a third of these women was under 25 years of age. A further 40% of women were between the ages of 26 and 35 (Ibid.) Regardless of their gender, nearly all television licence fine defaulters tended to be white, in contrast to the rest of the prison population in England and Wales.
Although the difference in the rate of growth in prosecution between men and women over this period was not very significant, of the 746 individuals imprisoned for failing to pay fines imposed originally for television licence offences in 1995, 66% were men. In other words, whilst the majority of those prosecuted and convicted for television licence evasion offences were women, men were disproportionately represented in the statistics for continuing default in relation to the same offence. This should not detract us from the fact that television licence evaders now constitute a significant proportion of female imprisoned fine defaulters. Figure 3 shows prison receptions for fine default by type of offence and gender in 1995. There were 17% of women television licence evaders who were imprisoned for fine default, compared to only 2.6% of the men. Excluding motoring offences, default on television licence fines accounted for the largest single number of female fine defaulter receptions. There were more women imprisoned for fine default concerning television licence offences than there were for offences relating to theft and handling (16.2%), prostitution (5.6%), fraud and forgery (4.2%), violence against the person (3.9%), burglary and robbery (1.5%), or drunkenness (1.8%).
This chapter has examined the Criminal Statistics far England and Wales between 1980 and 1994 in order to explore the criminalisation of female poverty in relation to television licence evasion. Despite the difficulties involved in understanding trends in prosecution and sentencing, it has been suggested that there have been real increases in this type of 'crime of poverty' over this period. It has further been suggested that perpetrators of television licence evasion are doubly punished through the imposition of fines, which they often cannot afford, and which may consequently lead to their imprisonment for fine default. Television licence evasion now constitutes the largest single instance of female crime, and after excluding motoring offences, accounts for the largest number of imprisoned fine defaulters. One possible solution which could end the criminalisation of people living in poverty would be to abolish the licence fee and raise the level of general taxation as an alternative method of funding the BBC.
In order to update the essay by Christina Pantazis the C.A.L. has compiled the statistics shown below. If you compare the statistics in the essay with the statistics below you will discover that in the early 1990's a comparitively large number of people were being jailed for defaulting fines resulting from licence evasion (no precise records were kept prior to 1991). After 1995 the numbers being jailed began to drop off considerably. This was due in part to pressure from MPs, who were raising concerns about it in the House of Commons.
Receptions of female fine defaulters into prisons in England and Wales for using a television without a licence.
The table shown on the right is information given in answer to a written question in the House of Commons on 19th June 2000. This information is from the Secretary of State for the Home Department and is also published in "Prison statistics England and Wales".