Women are more likely to be disproportionately burdened by the payment, so it’s fair to say that the TV licence is a feminist issue
As a full-time working, single mum to a toddler, I can’t remember the last time I switched on the television. Over Christmas, I called an engineer to fix our “broken” TV and actually learned it hadn’t been used in the two years we’d lived in the house – the tech guy pointed out that there was, in fact, no aerial installed in the property.
I felt a huge surge of annoyance at having wasted £159 over each of the last two years. But my exasperation pales into insignificance when compared with the struggles of the 114,000 people convicted in 2019 for failure to pay the licence fee. This criminal offence comes with a pretty chunky fine of up to £1,000, which is particularly unjust when you consider that many of these people were likely dodging the charge because they lacked the funds in the first place.
And thus, our Tory culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, unexpectedly endeared herself to me when she announced that the next licence fee settlement – which will take the BBC to the end of 2027 – would be the last. It feels like a small win for all the tired, single mothers wanting to put the television on to keep the kids quiet while we cook a vaguely nutritious meal of veggie sausages, frozen peas and mash.
Women are more likely to be poor, struggling to pay bills and thus disproportionately burdened by the payment, so it’s fair to say that the TV licence is a feminist issue. This fact is even reflected in the official Ministry of Justice statistics, which show that 74 per cent of the people convicted for non-payment in 2019 were female – the offence accounts for 30 per cent of female convictions, compared with 4 per cent of male convictions, making it the most common crime committed by women.
This high rate of female offending is unsurprising when you consider that 45 per cent of single parents – 90 per cent of whom are women – are living in poverty across Britain. On top of this fact, childcare responsibilities mean that these people are disproportionately likely to be at home during the day when TV licence enforcers call. Women are also more likely to answer the door and cooperate than men, so they’re most frequently the person who ends up down the local magistrates’ court.
And while you can’t go to jail for failure to pay the licence fee itself, you will be locked up if you’re unable to afford the £1,000 fine. I was shocked when a prison officer in a women’s jail told me that about a third of inmates were inside for the crime of failing to pay their TV licence penalty notice. As she quite rightly pointed out, our society is criminalising poverty and needlessly subjecting women to the long-term consequences of a custodial sentence. Surely debt should never be punished with prison?
Sadly, a significant proportion of these women are mothers – who have been forcibly removed from their dependent children and lost the family home – in order to serve a relatively short jail term. Maternal imprisonment is considered an “adverse childhood experience” with irreparable lifelong consequences for kids. It has a far greater overall impact on children than paternal imprisonment, as mums are more commonly the primary caregiver, a 2022 report from Crest Advisory notes.
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The impact of parental imprisonment includes exclusion from school, increased vulnerability to exploitation, mental health issues and youth crime, which can eventually lead to intergenerational imprisonment. And it’s fair to say that the criminalisation of TV licence non-payment undermines the government’s efforts to achieve its objective of having fewer women in custody on short-term sentences.
For decades, the TV licence has perpetuated the structural inequality present within modern Britain. It has increased the stress and anxiety experienced by the most vulnerable people in our society, from single parents to disabled and older people. A total of 23 per cent of Britons lived in poverty before the pandemic in March 2020, the government estimates.
And this figure is likely to have increased over the last two years, so the abolition of the TV licence fee is one less worry for those of us who regularly come home to the ominous-looking letter – demanding this payment – on the doormat.