Thursday 12 March 2020 1:17 pm

BBC could take pensioners to court over licence fee evasion

Pensioners could be hauled in front of a judge amid an ongoing row over payment of the BBC licence fee, the broadcaster’s director general has said.

Lord Tony Hall today admitted that some people in their 80s and 90s could be taken to court if they fail to pay the £157.50 charge.

Read more: BBC must avoid ‘narrow urban outlook’, warns new culture secretary

Speaking during a hearing of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, Hall said it was “conceivable” pensioners would face criminal prosecution, but said the corporation would try to avoid that outcome.

“We will do everything we can to ensure our communication with over-75s is sensitive and they have everything they need to know to sign up,” he said.

The government’s blanket free TV licence scheme will end in June, meaning only over-75s on receiving pension credit will be eligible for the waiver.

The move has proved controversial, with critics including DCMS committee chair Julian Knight blasting the fact that people could be sent to prison for failing to pay the fee.

The government has now launched a consultation into decriminalising non-payment of the licence fee.

But Hall, who will step down from his role this summer, today pushed back against accusations that the BBC was heavy-handed in its enforcement.

“None of us want people going to prison for non-payment of the licence fee,” he said.

The director general added that there were “myths” surrounding the issue of evasion, stating that people could not go to prison for that offence alone.

“They go because there is a combination of things they have done that are in contempt of the magistrates court,” he said.

Hall cited a 2015 review by David Perry QC, which concluded the licence fee system was “broadly fair”, while only five people in England and Wales were jailed for not paying court fines, according to the latest annual figures.

It came as the director general, chairman Sir David Clementi and director of policy Clare Sumner fielded questions from MPs over the broadcaster’s future.

Read more: Independent mayoral candidate Rory Stewart in BBC row

Asked about the impact of coronavirus on the BBC’s output, Hall said that some of the organisation’s services could be put “out of action”. But the media boss said the broadcaster was “intent on keeping absolutely everything open”.

The appearance will likely be Hall’s last as he prepares to step down after seven years at the helm. The BBC is now on the hunt for a new director general, with applications closing earlier this week.